Monday, August 10, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This is another Jackie recommendation. It is a story of the inhabitants of an upscale Paris apartment complex, with the focus being the concierge and one of the families that includes a younger daughter who does not fit in with the rest of her family. The concierge and the little girl have inner lives unapparent to the disinterested rest of the complex inhabitants. A new apartment occupant changes the dynamics of the complex and brings out the inner lives of the concierge and the girl.

This is simple story telling in the vein of "To Kill A Mockingbird" but with a broader consideration of art and the meaning of life done without pretension. The concierge contemplates the point of art and philosophy as well and as concisely as anything I've encountered while making it a part of the story rather than the point of the story. I should have had a hi lighter in hand to mark those portions bearing repeating but it would have taken away from just reading a truly lovely story that I did not want to end.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton

Jackie and I both read this and liked it. It's the story of a small band of Special Forces soldiers who entered Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and worked with local, often competing, warlord factions to overthrow the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. You get to know the men and their training prior to deployment and then follow them as they move from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan via the worst helicopter ride you'll ever read about to the headquarters of one of the warlords. They lived with, and at the level of, the local fighters, which is to say they were very deprived and operated under extreme circumstances for long periods of time. It was touch-and-go near the end and could easily have resulted in a campaign that lasted years instead of months. We are a fortunate people to have those among us willing to live the life these Special Forces troops have chosen.
For those who've read "The Kite Runner" and "Three Cups of Tea," this is a compliment to those views of life in Afghanistan. I got a stronger sense of just how widespread and evil the Taliban regime was and how complex Afghan society is. I'm not sure if the country can be governed as a republic in the same way as occurs in the U.S., but it sounds like our initial foray into that country started on the right foot and gave us a better chance as being viewed as liberators rather than conquerors.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Beckie sent this book for Father's Day and mentioned she thought of me while reading it. It was a thoughtful gift. You've probably read about this professor who only had a few months to live and gave a last lecture at his university. He had three small children and wanted to leave snippets of himself for them to access when they were older in addition to the video tapes of him interacting with them. The lecture and book focused on dreams he had as a boy and approaches to life he used to attain those dreams and live that life.

Randy Pausch had a self-described large ego that came through in the book. I found it a little off-putting but in the end also thought he did a good job of weaving his life approaches into the narrative of giving the lecture and approaching the end of life. I also understand why Beckie thought of me because so many of the things he described as approaches to life have come out of my mouth and into the ears of Beckie and Amanda. Maybe the ego was there, too, which is a little disconcerting. He had more specific dreams for the future as a boy than most people I know and did a good job of attaining those dreams.

As a whole, you could do worse than following his advise for living a life. It's a quick and clear read that's worthwhile for all our blogger community. It also brings up the question of how you'd spend your last few months if you knew that was the limit. He made interesting choices with that question.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

As with many of the books here, Jackie read it first and suggested I'd like it. She's right. It concerns the history of the Rehnquist court, the longest running time in U.S. history when the same 9 judges sat on the court. He continues the book after Rehnquist's death until just before the '08 election.

Toobin is a clear writer who handles this topic with judgement and as little bias as can be had considering some of the court's actions sometime call for expressions of outrage or confusion. It documents the steady drift to the right of that court and the self-leveling dynamics from within the court that allowed some justices who could have been considered right of center to move to the center for the sake of common sense. In the end, the steady focus of the extreme right that has taken over the Republican Party finally broke through with today's court being the result.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the conclusion that there is no such thing as a judge who is not an activist. To have the hard core Constitutionalists judges like Thomas and Scalia vote for the Bush administration and against a specific portion of the original Constitution violating the Writ of Habeus Corpus and the skewing of power toward the executive branch just shows that politics speaks louder than the Constitution when it serves a judge's interests. This is a very good book but made me angry all over again reliving the 2000-08 time frame.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Becky blogged on two books by Murakami and I tried finding them at the library and local book store, to no avail. However, there were a number of others available and I tried this one. From reading Becky's blogs, this book, and the synopsis of other books, Murakami has a consistent style. I liked it but it may not be for everyone.

The story involves a late twenty-something man who's drifting through life and gets drawn into a mystery involving a sheep with mystical powers. There is a web of intrigue surrounding the sheep as well as time shifts along the way to add a back story to the main event. The fact that the author treats the idea of a sheep with powers in a serious manner gives you a sense of his underlying dry humor. Occasionally, there's almost a science fiction feel to some of the story. Some of the dialogue sounds like those you'd have in college late at night discussing stuff that might be alcohol-fueled and would be tedious if it weren't so much fun at the time. Now that the story has ended, I'm thinking of it a little to try filling in the blanks but I think the destination is not as important as the journey.

Amanda might like him, so try either this book or the Wind Up Bird Chronicles. I'll ask Becky to bring her copy of WUBC when she's here later in the year. I'd like to read more of Murakami but need some different authors in between.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

I'm reviewing these two books together because they are so interconnected. I actually read Gilead in 2004, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize, and reread it just a few weeks ago before I started Home. Robinson's prose is a joy to is consistently beautiful, graceful and spiritual. The word elegiac, I think, best describes its tone. So, if you're in the mood for something light and cheerful, these are not the books for you right now. However, if you are in a more pensive state of mind, I think you will be swept away.

Briefly, Gilead reads almost like a sermon on living life to the fullest. The narrative flows in the form of a long letter written by the aged and dying Reverend John Ames to his young son. Since he knows he won't live to see his son grow up he wants to leave the boy with an accurate accounting of his forebears and himself. As the son and grandson of preachers he describes how his grandfather went west to Kansas to fight abolition and "preached men into the Civil War". Rev. Ames also relates his own vision of life as a "wondrously strange creation". Woven throughout his narration is also a story about the deep, complicated and often strained bonds that exist between fathers and sons.

Ames spends a good deal of time discussing his long time friend, next-door neighbor and fellow preacher, Reverend Robert Boughton. Boughton's wayward son, Jack (he was named after Rev. John Ames) returns to Gilead in an attempt to make peace with his own dying father. Jack has always been Boughton's favorite child despite his long history of thievery, meaness, drunkeness and irresponsiblity. Ames also knew Jack as a child and has never liked or trusted him. And it is clear from Ames' musings that he is anxious and fearful of what Jack's intentions might be toward his (Ames') young wife and son after he is gone from this world. The sequel, Home, provides a tender counterpoint to this notion......

The story of Home is also set in Gilead (Iowa) and runs concurrently but in Reverend Boughton's household. As I mentioned earlier, Jack, Boughton's favorite son, returns home after a 20 year absence, hoping to make peace with his father but discovers that the old man is dying. The family's youngest child, Glory had recently returned to the family home to take care of her father in his final days. Since Jack had been run out of town in disgrace while Glory was still a child, the two are now almost like strangers to each other. But as the days and weeks unfold and their father's condition continues to decline, Jack and Glory begin to forge an intense bond with each other as they slowly and painfully reveal and begin coming to terms with some of the past regrets and painful secrets that continue to haunt them. Robinson describes Jack's awkward, yet loving and tender efforts to reconcile the tattered relationship with his father in such a way that, as a reader, I began to believe that he had changed. For Boughton, however, the effort comes too late as his mind gradually slips away.

Home (and Gilead) is "about families, family secrets, and the passing of generations, about love and death and unforgettable embodiment of the deepest and most universal emotions."(inside front flap) I thought these were compelling stories...and think you will too.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon

Amanda posted this review a little while back and thought I'd like it. Rather than just add a comment to her review and say "I liked it a lot" I thought I'd add this post to highlight the book.

I liked it a lot.

Everything Amanda wrote is true. My add is that it is a sad and funny coming of age story for a young man who is coming of age under very difficult circumstances. His autism is only one of them. Yet through it all he is brave, interesting and a good detective. He also manages his issues well, given how large they are. Sometimes they break your heart. It's probably a mark of the quality of the story and the writing that, once I picked it up, it was done in about a day and a half. I think everyone will like this one... a lot.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Amanda's Crafty Books

Dad is right....I've been in some sort of crafty manic phase for a while. But you said you wanted to know what I'm reading, so here goes. I recently checked out Material Obsession by Kathy Doughty and Sarah Fielke. The subtitle is: Modern Quilts with Traditional Roots. I know, right? Who is this person and where did Amanda go? But it is beautiful! I've never quilted, but I think it's the next craft to get added to my list. The "Avalon" and "Retro Starburst" patterns look like projects I might actually be able to accomplish. And ALL of the more advanced quilts are so inspiring that they make you want to learn the craft so you could one day make something so beautiful. Mom, I think you might like this one. I'm actually surprised you haven't quilted before (or have you? she asks, in a mysterious tone, trying to uncover some deep dark quilting secret....)

I can't go any further without mentioning "The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections" by Amanda Blake Soule. This woman has become such an inspiration to me in the last few months. I can't remember how I discovered this book, but after being so impressed with her book I quickly began following her blog I have tried a few of the projects in her book such as the birthday banner, embroidering with kids, and letterboxing. In the next couple weeks I plan to do some freezer-paper transfers of some art by one of my favorite artists, Nikki McClure ( which is another project in the book. Phil and Debbie, you might find inspiration from this one. She really focuses on connecting with your children and exploring nature and creativity. I'm not doing her justice here, but at least check out her blog. If nothing else, you can enjoy her beautiful photography and gentle reminders to stop and appreciate your life "right now."

Okay, I'll only make you sit through one more...I'm guessing none of you will read it because it's a children's book. However, I am blown away by Cynthia Rylant's retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" and Jen Corace's amazing illustrations ( Finding well-done retellings (i.e. not Disney-ified or saccharine sweet) of classic children's stories is not easy. There are very few that are accessible for the 3-6 year old age group. Most of the well-written versions are extremely wordy. And I'm sorry, but bedtime book reading is a 20-minute event in our house. Preferably with as little whining as possible. So when I found this version of "Hansel and Gretel" I almost cried. It opens with the lines: "It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves. Such is the story of Hansel and Gretel." Does it get any better than that?

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

So, none of you will probably be surprised to see that a running book finally made it onto my short list. This was a gift from my friend, Karen, and from the moment I read the title I was hooked. Since I realize I'm quickly alienating at least half of the blog readership here who could really care less about what I or anyone else talks about while running, I should say that you don't have to be a runner to appreciate this book. While all of the stories (written more like diary entries than short stories or one, fluid text) have running at the center (or at least as a supporting character), I read it as more of a life journey that happened to include a lot of intense running (this dude would wipe the floor with me on his worst day). What I loved, though, since I do happen to be a runner, was the common experience of it all. So much of what he felt, thought, talked about on any given day, in any little or big town, was very relate-able. However, when I read reviews about this book on amazon and elsewhere I found that an overwhelming majority of reviews (both professional and amature) thought that this book would only appeal to a small audience of relatively hard-core runners (a category of which I do not consider myself a part, for what it's worth). So, keep that in mind...
I can say that dad immediately popped into my mind, not only because he and I can go off on tangents about running for 10-20 minutes, but because I think he may enjoy (more than others) the writing style.
This seems to be somewhat of a theme for this and the last review I did, but I've read another book by Murakami and blogged about it as well: "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle." I loved that book and still hold firm to my recommendation on that one to you, too,, do with that what you will.
Either way, I really enjoyed this - it's a quick read, it's about running, and it was an interesting take on a solitary sport (that I try to turn into a group sport at every opportunity!).

Best American Non-Required Reading 2008

I got this book from Amanda for Christmas and loved it. I love collections like this because you can read it out of order, more than once, and skip entire entries if you want. I do have to admit, though, that my favorite part of this entire collection was the interview with Judy Blume. I have a soft spot in my heart for Judy Blume, as Amanda and I both grew up with her books, and she just seems like a really smart, down-to-earth, cool person.
On another interesting note, the editor of this collection is Dave Eggers, who happens to be the author of another book I blogged about in '08 called "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." And while I thought the book was good in its own right, "The Best American Nonrequired Reading" was much more enjoyable, so kudos to Mr. Eggers!
The long and short of it is this: the book is part of a series that comes out each year and compiles various fiction, nonfiction, essays, journalism, comics, and humor, and in no particular order. I hope this anthology becomes a tradition (hint hint, Amanda) because I've found myself going back to it over the last few months and re-reading various stories or noticing a story that I skipped previously. So, this is something that I would actually suggest to anyone, because I think it'd be hard for each of you to not find at least a few entries you found inspired or just plain funny. Thanks, Amanda, this is definitely a keeper in my collection!

The Stanger -and - The Plague by Albert Camus

I'm posting this review just to purge my system and get ready to start "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." Amanda recommended that book and I'm pretty sure I'll like it. I'm starting it today.
Why I decided to read Camus, I have no idea. He's one of those authors you are supposed to read to broaden your thoughts. I'd finished "In Cold Blood", an excellent book about senseless deaths and their aftermath. So what did I do? Read two more books about senseless death and its aftermath. Not a good idea at the tail end of winter. "Stori Telling" (or however it's spelled) is probably more recommended but the local book store didn't have it.
Anyhow, "The Stranger" involves a man who drifts through life, not really caring if he decides for or against any action, and ends up killing someone for no good reason. He's sentenced to death and may or may not be executed at the end of the book. There may or may not be a God, an afterlife, or meaning to any event other than its immediate utility. In "The Plague" the murderer is a disease that kills tens of thousands in the same meaningless environment. It's probably a thought to consider (if you haven't already), but you can just read this paragraph and skip the books to get the idea. Unlike "ICB" the writing was not compelling, even though the characters were reasonably lifelike and sometimes likable.
It was interesting reading a copy of "The Plague" that was Jackie's in nursing school. Turns out her dog ate nine pages just before the end of the book, plus a few paragraphs at the beginning. It didn't mater. I didn't know why the police were suddenly rushing an apartment building and dragging a man into the streets after just finishing the chapter where the plague has run its course and the city is about to be set free to resume its normal life. Had the pages been left in the book, I might not have understood why the man went crazy anyhow.
Any questions? Answer them yourself.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Becky wrote about Breakfast At Tiffany's and I mentioned I'd never read "In Cold Blood" so she loaned me her copy. If there are any others in our circle who've not read it, I strongly recommend it.

As you probably know, it's the story of two men who kill a family of four in Kansas and how they subsequently were captured and executed. The "must read" aspect of the story is Capote's descriptive yet sparse writing and his empathy for everyone appearing in the story, including the murderers. It's not a bleeding heart empathy but rather a clear-eyed look at everyone involved and a lack of vindictive slant when it would be easy to do given the awful nature of the crime. The two murderers had different backgrounds and somewhat different psychological drivers leading to the murder but you feel as if you know them, the victims, lawmen, townspeople, and anyone else touched by the crime. It's also why we lock our doors while living in an area where almost nobody else locks theirs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lincoln - The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

Not another Lincoln bio. Aren't there like a million of them? Yep, give or take but this is different from any of the others I've read. The author answers the "why another" question with "...there is no modern study of the origin and development of Lincoln's literary sensibility and genius... Lincoln's reading in the textbooks and literary anthologies of his youth, the literature that helped shape his mind and his prose style, is an essential part of the story."

Kaplan does a first rate job of looking at the available literature of Lincoln's youth, his favorite authors (especially poets) of his adulthood and the speeches by others who Lincoln admired and shows the echos of those sources in his famous and not so famous essays. Kaplan calls them essays rather than speeches because Lincoln almost never spoke extemporaneously. He laid out each formal speech in a tight format that made the point while allowing for inserted jokes and stories (mostly "earthy") as the situation dictated. He wrote decent poetry, made two of the best speeches by any politician ever and could well be called the political Mark Twain. Kaplan also focuses on areas skipped over by everyone else I've read, including his unhappy (and coerced?) marriage, his treatment of the Indians, and his alienation from his father. Lincoln's use of language and his personal philosophy of how honest language is a critical factor in presidential leadership brings into sharp focus why the presidential utterances of the last eight years have been such an unsatisfying experience and what contributed in great part to his (GWB) impotence as a leader. For anyone who is interested in Lincoln, this is a must read.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This book was a Christmas gift from Amanda and it's a winner. If you love a good ghost story, you must add this one to your reading list. Written in the style of a gothic romantic mystery, it's a real page turner! The plot is well paced, original and intriguing; the characters well-developed, convincing and so mysterious. I was hooked from the first page and was sorry to see it end.

In brief, this is a tale about an old estate, a very strange family, sexual obsession, twins, murder, ghosts and madness (all the elements that make for a really great story!). The Thirteenth tale begins to unfold when the reknown author, Vida Winter, contacts Margaret, a young author and antiquarian bookseller in London, and asks her to write a biography of her (Vida's) long and secretive life. Since Miss Winter had already told her"story" to 19 other writers, in 19 completely different versions, Margaret was wary of the task ahead of her.

As Vida begins to share her "stories" will feel yourslef getting sucked into her mysterious web of intrigue. The storytelling is masterful, suspenseful and surprising. And just when you think you've figured it all out, wait...there's more to come. I don't want to give anything away, but trust me, you will not be disappointed!