Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Near the beginning of the book, one of the characters describes historical questions by noting "we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."  This is Adrian Finn, the bright one of a group of four English school boys with the one putting history in front of us being Tony Webster.  The story moves quickly (163 pages in the paperback version) through Tony's life and yet we don't start to understand it until the last page.  Then you want to go back to some spots to see if the story still hangs together, which of course it does.  Tony is an inaccurate teller of history, not because he is dishonest but just because he is human.  His own history is colored by his emotions and so he doesn't fully know the history of the historian.  Things that he was certain of at 25 look different at 60.  Isn't that always the case?
The book is another Man Booker Prize winner and is a beautiful, subtly written look at a life and how what you think you know as the life is being lived changes over time even though the facts of the event are unchangeable.  It's an easy read yet complex.  You could read this one in a day and then go back and read it again.  I'd recommend it to all the family.  It was recommended to me by Jackie.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Sea by John Banville

This will be two reviews in one.
First review (kinda short) - this is a beautifully written story.  Read it.
Second review (kinda long)- the estate of Raymond Chandler, who wrote one of the best detective series ever using the character of Phillip Marlow ("Farewell, My Lovely", "The Big Sleep", "The Lady in the Lake", etc.) just commissioned John Banville to write a new Phillip Marlow story.  He was selected because he is supposed to be an excellent writer and has his own series of crime novels.  I'm always on the lookout for a new crime author (most of them aren't that good), so I thought I'd give him a try. 

"The Sea" is not a crime novel but a major award winner so I figured the quality of his writing would show through, and does it ever!  The first paragraph is one of the best ones I've ever read and by the second page I'd even remembered that I read the book before many years ago.  Go figure.  It was illuminating in more ways than one, because I think I had a different impression of the book the first time around.  Then, I thought it was a good story but was a little irritated by some of the vocabulary, which seemed unnecessarily rich unless your PhD program was in English literature.  Second time around, I was more relaxed reading it and savored each paragraph, even though it still didn't take that long to read the book.  I also looked up the British English words I didn't know and it turns out he used exactly the right word each time.  It's a fairly simple story of a man who's wife dies and the man tries to cope.  He doesn't do it very well and uses a lot of thinking about the past to avoid the present and actually moves to a cottage where he met his first boyhood love on the seashore.  In short, this is a story of loss and memory.  Sounds like a downer, but it's not.  I'd recommend it for each reader in our family but think Jackie would like it best, just because she's already a better reader than me and would appreciate the quality.  The rest of our bloggers need to carve out the right time when you can just sit back for at least a relaxed half hour to get started. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Graveyard Book and Interworld By Neil Gaiman

Seems like I'm posting British authors of supernatural stories, ala "The Gates", but Amanda gave me two Neil Gaiman books for Father's Day and Becky was curious about them, so her goes.  I read a movie review once that said "if you like that kind of stuff, you'll like this kind of stuff."  If you liked "The Gates" you may like "The Graveyard Book."  Gaiman won a ton of awards for it, and the story is odd but enjoyable, if you like that kind of stuff.  I do.  In a nutshell, a toddler's family is murdered by a member of a secret society and he was specifically supposed to get the toddler.  But, the toddler wandered away into a graveyard, the resident ghosts decided to take him in, and the murderer was deflected away and lost track of the baby.  The rest of the book jumps every two years as the boy gets older and learns cool ghost tricks, like walking through walls and disappearing.  Each jump involves a good adventure and another understanding by the boy of the world and, eventually, how he will have to live in it.  The murderer never stops looking and the book ends with the inevitable confrontation.  I liked the boy, the ghosts and other supernatural characters who protected and mentored the boy.  A good read.

So, you probably think the other book she gave me was "Interworld."  Nope.  That was "Good Omens", which was good but jumped around so much I found it distracting.  I think Becky would get a headache.  So I checked out "Interworld" from the library and find it sort of a more adult followup to "The Graveyard Book."  Seems there's a parallel existence to the one most of us inhabit (I'm pretty sure some folks are living in a different world) and the main character gets drawn into it.  It's a lot more dangerous than the current world and time isn't quite the same.  Think of Neo in "The Matrix" before and after working in the office.  It's a good adventure, the story moves right along, and it also ends in a satisfying way.  Think of Becky's blog postings, except with pants and happening in a sewer.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Infernals by John Connolly

This is the second of Connolly's books with Samuel Johnson and his dog/friend Boswell.  It's a while after Samuel and friends save the world from demons coming through a portal inadvertently aided by powering up the Super Collider in Bern.  Now the tables are turned by the avenging demon who originally headed the invasion.  He's sucked Samuel and others from the village into Hell to gain revenge and to get in good with the head guy in Hell who's feeling a little off at the moment, leaving a lot of chaos in his leadership void.  Here's the deal... demons in an English village on Holloween - clever and funny.  Villagers in Hell against inept demons - not the same.  The funny asides and footnotes are still there, it just didn't work as well for me.  Maybe I was feeling grumpy (it happens), but I'll post on one of the books Amanda gave me for Father's day that is on a par with "The Gates."  As for this, maybe it would have been better with its English publication title "Hells Bells."  Or not.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Enemies: A History Of The FBI by Tim Weiner

I'm having no luck finding a breezy book to try and match Becky's entries. OK, you win, it can't be done (No, I might be able to find a breezy book, but Becky has the patent on funny write-ups). So.... let's all read about J. Edgar Hoover and those zany guys at the FBI!

This is one heck of a story. Starts back with presidents from Lincoln on using private investigators to try and figure out what's going on inside the country and Teddy Roosevelt setting up a federal agency for the same purpose. They didn't bother with pesky things like a congressional charter (there still isn't one for the FBI) or too much oversight, because what they wanted to know normally couldn't be done with search warrants and lots of rules. This book really isn't about J. Edgar being a loose cannon. It's about every president wanting the kind of information those agencies (the FBI is only the most recent incarnation) could provide and J. Edgar doing a pretty good job of providing it.

When Nixon came on the scene, he was so far out on the paranoid edge as far as wanting info on everyone that even Hoover pulled back from him and Nixon created his own very poor spy organization (the Plumbers) with disastrous results. The fallout from Watergate hamstrung the agency, which is only now in a position to where rules exist to guide the FBI yet give them enough leeway to do the job. I got to the end of the book with hope that there can now be a balanced future between competent outcomes and infringement of personal liberties.

The is a real page-turner. There have been continuous instances of internal and external terrorists in the U.S. since the 19th century and this narrative puts them into context and actually changed some of my thinking on individual freedom vs. civic safety. The book does not focus on the federal law enforcement aspect of the agency but on intelligence gathering and how it has sometimes kept us safe and sometimes missed the boat. It's a great read and a wonderful historical perspective.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

"So, witches had to keep one another normal or at least what was normal for witches. It didn't take very much: a tea party, a singalong, a stroll in the woods, and somehow everything balanced up, and they could look at advertisements for gingerbread cottages in the builder's brochure without putting a deposit on one." (p. 53)

Tiffany Aching is a witch and a rather young one at that. She does all the dirty business witches are expected to do (births, salves, tending to the weak) and not much of the dirty business witches are thought to do (spells and general wickedness). But when the ghost of a witch hunter is unleashed into Tiffany's world and the "rough music" dances him out of darkness and into the hearts of those who "make room for the evil," Tiffany must find the courage and skill to destroy him and reunite her village in the face of unspeakable evils and the kind of fear and ignorance that tears people apart.

"I Shall Wear Midnight" confirms that I need to be reading more Terry Pratchett. Several years ago I enjoyed a book he co-authored with Neil Gaiman called "Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch." I don't know why I didn't immediately pick up another of his books right then and there. Oh yeah. It's because I started reading more Gaiman. Which wasn't a bad bet. But it's nice to know he wasn't the only one running the show with "Good Omens." Pratchett is insightful and funny and neither of those words do justice to the delight it is to read his work. Dad, start with "Good Omens" and see what you think, since this one is in the YA vein. But it's good stuff. A genuine pleasure.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs was an arrogant asshole. You still with me? Ok, now you should totally read this book. While I know members of this fine family have their personal feelings about Apple and Apple products, perhaps even about Steve Jobs himself, this is a book worth picking up. As an iPhone and iPad owner, I clearly drank the Kool-Aid. And boy is it tasty. Mmmm…sugar.

Focus, Becky. Ok, but seriously, you don’t need to own or have owned an Apple product or even like Apple products to have respect for just what Apple has done for our society. Good, bad, or in between, it’s changed us. And Steve Jobs, love him or hate him (and there are about 10 people, I think, who loved him), was a mad genius. And I don’t mean that in the Boston “wicked-smart” sense, either. He was mad, and he was a genius.

While this book is more than 600 pages long, I didn’t find anything slow or extraneous about it. Walter Isaacson, the author, has written a few biographies that I think mom and dad have read – Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. And as Isaacson states in his intro, he’s quite sure that Steve Jobs saw himself as a natural progression of that list.

This was a fascinating portrayal of a very complicated, mercurial, selfish, brilliant, eccentric, sensitive, strong, elusive man. He brought computers into the mainstream, made them cool, accessible, flashy, and functional. He brought animation into the 21st century before we were even in it, and he changed the way in which we buy and access music, movies, and information. Steve Jobs was an arrogant asshole. And this was one of the best books I’ve ever read.  

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

I've always had an interest in Japan, especially Japan prior to its being forced open in the mid-1800's. This story centers around 50 years prior to that time, when a young Dutch clerk seeks his fortune by going to the only place where foreigners are allowed in Japan, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. He becomes infatuated with a Japanese woman who is a midwife and a student of the European doctor who tends to the Dutch East India Company residents of this foreign enclave.

I almost gave up on Jacob in the first third of the book because I thought he was a rigid naif among a nest of snakes and was hoping for more. I kept going because of the writing and the characters.

Without giving too much away, Jacob's circumstances change, and then the book just takes off. The story pulls you along into a web of intrigue and Jacob rises to the occasion. If you enjoy being immersed in an exotic time and place by an imaginative plot using interesting characters, this book is for you. Becky, it has similar other worldly aspects that remind me of Murakami. Amanda, there is true evil magic. Everyone, it is subtle and beautifully written. Hope you like it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Voyage by Philip Caputo

Could this picture be any bigger? Anyhow, thought I'd go big for my first post in a couple of years. Was going to try for funny, but Becky set the bar on that one for her first two, so I'll try my usual format and maybe stretch out with later posts.

"On a June morning in 1901, Cyrus Braithwaite orders his three sons to set sail from their Maine home aboard the family's forty-six-foot schooner and not return until September. Though confused and hurt by their father's cold-blooded actions, the three brothers soon rise to the occasion and embark on a breathtakingly perilous journey down the East Coast, headed for the Florida Keys. Almost one hundred years later, Cyrus's great-granddaughter Sybil sets out to uncover the events that transpired on the voyage. Her discoveries about the Braithwaite family and the America they lived in unfolds into a stunning tale of intrigue, murder, lies and deceit."

I copied that last paragraph from the Random House website. Couldn't have done better, so let's call this the sincerest form of flattery. About the book, I really liked it. The initial start with the great-granddaughter looking into a mystery was kind of clunky, but once the tale was fully enveloped with the three boys and the ship, it was as good as sea stories and coming of age stories get. The mystery is good, the clues make sense when presented, and all of the scenes of storms, animal or human attacks, and family dynamics really work. I had to put the book down a couple of times and mentally catch my breath after a few of those scenes. Caputo is a wonderfully clear and descriptive writer without being verbose. I know all the not-retired folks have time constraints, but this is writing at its best and worth the time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

“This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It’s mostly pink. If you’re reading this book every night for months, something is not right.”

Ok, full disclosure: This book took me three days to read when it should’ve taken me an afternoon. Why? Not because I’m secretly dyslexic or really super slow, but simply because I did not not not want this book to end. I didn’t think it’d be possible to read a book that I thought was funnier than “Bossypants,” but this one took the cake (mmm, cake).

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me” is written by someone who, up until reading the book, I knew nothing about, cared nothing about, and really thought was sort of annoying. I’m not a fan of the US version of “The Office”, even though I think it has its moments. But I really wasn’t a fan of Mindy Kaling’s character on that show. So when I heard that she wrote a book, it barely registered.

But then it popped up on my Amazon list under “Suggested Reads” (not sure why, I mean, just because I read any book by any famous woman who wants to give me advice on life, love, and friendship doesn’t mean…hey, it does sound funny! Thanks,!). However, I was still resistant because I have standards and if I’m going to be in my apartment alone reading with my cat it has to be something worthwhile, like Betty White’s “If You Ask Me…and I’m Sure You Won’t” (classic!).

In a shocking turn of events, though, I got really desperate one night when I realized that I was going through withdrawal after finishing the Steve Jobs biography (stay tuned) and “The Gates” (thanks for blogging about that, dad! Loved it! Perhaps I’ll add to your blogging…). So, I wandered over to Barnes and Noble and this pretty pink book was staring me down, just daring me to buy it. Never one to say no to a challenge, I picked it up and said “Bring it, Mindy.”

And she did.

I think Amanda would really like this book (actually, I think you all would, but for some reason I can’t see mom or dad picking it up) and I promise you will laugh out loud at almost every page. And the moment I put it down I immediately texted Courtney, Mary, Beth, and Deidre to tell them to stop whatever it was that they were doing and buy it. And since Courtney and Mary are the only ones, for some reason, who listen to what I say (mind-boggling), they did it immediately, leading to one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

Court: I’m pretty sure you are the ghost writer behind this book. She sounds just like you. You need to write a book.

Me: I wish I was that funny.

Court: You are. Now shut up and go write a book.

So, you see, with a review like that how could you not want to read it?

“I'm the kind of person who would rather get my hopes up really high and watch them get dashed to pieces than wisely keep my expectations at bay and hope they are exceeded. This quality has made me a needy and theatrical friend, but has given me a spectacularly dramatic emotional life.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey

“My ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by my ability to turn anxiety into chin acne.” 

It is rare to laugh through a book as often as I laughed through “Bossypants.” And before any of you cast this book aside because you don’t think 30 Rock is funny (agreed) or SNL (agreed) or even Tina Fey herself (I was neutral), take a step back. This is at the top of my list as one of the two funniest books I’ve ever read – and the other I’m blogging about after this.

Being able to capture the funny in mundane is something I think Tina Fey does better than most. She also captures the universal feelings of insecurity, adolescence, career highs and lows, love, parenting, and everything else in between better than pretty much anyone I’ve come across. Except, of course, Tori Spelling. But c’mon, you saw that coming.

I actually think all three of you would find this book funny because it really does have something in it for everyone.  I know it’s not really the type of book any of you typically pick up, but maybe that’d be refreshing! Hey, I picked up “The Worst Book in Ameri –" wait, sorry, “Year of Wonders”, and I GUARNTEE you that this is better. Guaranteed. Wait, that’s faint praise. Ok, I guarantee that you will all like this better than “Stori Telling” by Tori Spelling. Wait……hmmm…ok, will you just pick it up already? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen, you waste an afternoon laughing and resent me for being right?

I think we can all live with that.