Friday, December 13, 2013

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

“I remember saying things, but I have no idea what was said. It was generally a friendly conversation.” —Associated Press reporter Jack Sullivan, attempting to recount a 3 A.M. exchange we had at a dinner party and inadvertently describing the past ten years of my life.” 

When I read this book nearly ten years ago, I became an instant fan of writer Chuck Klosterman. While he knows a lot more about music....and movies....and in general, pop culture, than I do, he basically knows about the music and movies and pop culture that I wish I did. 

Also, if you grew up in the 1980s or 90s, nearly every single reference he makes is something that will make you say "Oh my God, I remember that!" 

He deconstructs "Saved by the Bell" while also making mention of "When Harry Met Sally" - so obviously it spoke to me. And he touches on everything from Billy Joel and Star Wars to basketball and Pamela Anderson. 

Basically, this collection of essays is a great book you can pick up and put down as needed. Admittedly, I skipped a few here and there that didn't speak to me, but overall, I've recommended this book to a number of friends, all of whom are still speaking to me. So....that says something, right?

I loaned this to Amanda, who enjoyed it, but likely, since it's somewhat generational, mom and dad will likely skip it. 

Either way, though, recommended from anyone 30-45 years old who paid any attention at all to their pop culture surroundings while growing up. 


Friday, December 06, 2013

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

When I read "Long Walk to Freedom" back in 1999, it was because I'd taken a class in college that touched on his time in prison and the struggles he'd overcome in his life. Up until that time, I knew very little about the continent of Africa or the many intricacies that make up the countries and landscapes of that part of the world - and I also knew nothing about apartheid. 

This book floored me. It opened my eyes to the struggles that millions of people faced over decades of oppression and war, and specifically to the spirit within Nelson Mandela to still see the good in people, find the love among the hate, and bring a nation together in a once-in-a-generation kind of way. 

In light of the passing of Mr. Mandela, I started reflecting on this book and want to pick it up and read it again - and I wanted to blog about it! 

Plus, I can honestly say that everyone in the family, I think, would enjoy this - though obviously "Stori Telling" is a close second. 

There are a number of books on the life of Nelson Mandela, but I think his autobiography is a good place to start. 

Recommended = everyone.

Friday, November 08, 2013

"Spelling It Like It Is" by Tori Spelling

"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." - Me, after my review of Tori Spelling's first book, 'Stori Telling'

Well, it's the moment you've all been waiting for - or at least braced yourself for - the review of Tori's fourth book Spelling It Like It Is. You've gotta love that T, she knows how to incorporate her name into everything

Ok - so I read Stori Telling, then Mommywood, and then Unchartered Territori. Obviously I was going to read this one.

However, while I stand by my love, inexplicably, for all things Tori, I was a little disappointed in this book. I know, I know, I'm disappointed enough in myself as it is, you don't have to rub it in. 

 And it wasn't because it was hard to get through - um, I read it in two days and that's only because I had to go to work in between - or because it didn't have the usual Tori charm sewn into it. It did. Obviously. She's Tori. 

But there was something a little bit....narcissistic in this one that I somehow missed in the first three. And while I know it will shock you to read that a Hollywood actress would be a tad self-centered, for some reason it just seemed less charming this time around. 

That's not to say that the one and only Donna Martin doesn't have a story to tell - holy hell! She nearly died while pregnant with her fourth child, Finn, and that was no joke. It gets graphic and scary and emotional and really did help T put things into perspective (even if she did have her hospital room decorated with chic wallpaper to help get through hard times. I mean, she's Tori Spelling. Of course she put up wallpaper in her hospital room.)

But there was something a little empty to the notion that they were broke while she describes moving from house to house in Malibu, among other places, and switching hotel rooms from a place with no room service to a place with room service and "ski on, ski off" services for their winter vacation. 

I'd like to invite her over to my 800 square foot apartment where the fact that we have a heated bathroom basically made my life. It's all about perspective, people.

But overall, if you're a fan of Tori, or Tori and Dean, or scary pregnancy stories, or lots of random animals, or celebrity bios.....definitely read it! I give it a B to Tori's other knock-em-outta-the-park A's. 

I still heart you, Tori. And I read your blog every day. 

(um....recommended for no one in my family? Obviously. But I had to review it anyway.)

Friday, October 25, 2013

"I Feel Bad About My Neck" by Nora Ephron

“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're thirty-four.” 

So several years ago, Courtney recommended this book to me because...obviously. I mean, if you've ever spent more than three minutes in a room with Courtney and me, you will likely hear some quote from one of Nora Ephron's movies over the last three decades. 

Remember when we had a "Sleepless in Seattle"-watching party via phone when she passed? We're not well women. 

Anyway, I have to admit that when I picked it up several years ago, I was underwhelmed. Probably because Meg Ryan wasn't in it? Also, because maybe I was too busy worrying about my own neck. 

Either way, when I picked it up again last week I was pleasantly surprised that I was dumb the first time to have put it down. I mean, at 35 I'm still feeling pretty darn good about my neck and my eyes and things in general. Everything is more or less in the place it was when I was born, and even though I've been offered free Botox by friendly dermatologists in the past because I have my dad's furrowed brow, I'm more or less content. 

Nora Ephron was not. And it's really funny. 

She basically verbalizes what goes through our heads as women on a near-daily basis, content or not. Or, those of us who are maybe a little neurotic (and aren't we all?) 

“Here are some questions I am constantly noodling over: Do you splurge or do you hoard? Do you live every day as if it's your last, or do you save your money on the chance you'll live twenty more years? Is life too short, or is it going to be too long? Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down to smell the roses? And where do carbohydrates fit into all this? Are we really all going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in American is so unbelievable delicious? And what about chocolate?” 
It's like she's in my head. And bread is for real the delicious work of the devil.

I'm guessing my dad will pass on this since he's, you know, a man. But my mom would likely enjoy it, as would Amanda...I think? I'm not sure. Sometimes Amanda's all like 'I don't understand your obsession with romantic comedies and all things Nora Ephron' and I'm like 'I don't understand how we're related.'

Either way, mom, I'll bring it home at Christmas and you'll likely finish it in a day (it's 160 pages - I'm embarrassed how long it was on my nightstand). 


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale

Mysteries have changed over the years.  We started out with a theft, extortion, or even murder being solved by someone from the police, a consulting detective, or even a nice old lady who was pretty sharp and noticed things not seen or considered by others.

Over time, the crimes were described in much more brutal detail and the criminals started becoming more sadistic.  Now and over the last decade or so, it's hard to read even a very well written mystery that doesn't have a serial killer and some pretty explicit detail regarding the victim's plight.  That is the case with "The Bottoms."

In early 1930's east Texas, everyone is poor and living through hard times, including 12 year old Harry Collins and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina).  They've got decent parents doing the best they can, with Harry's dad working the farm, owning a barber shop, and also being the local constable.  When Harry and his sister find a "colored" woman brutally murdered down by the river, his dad tries to investigate.  The white population doesn't care and the "colored" folks don't want it investigated because eventually someone from their community will get lynched, even though they may not have done it.  When more bodies show up, the Klan verifies that opinion.  When the dust settles, Harry and his sister try to figure out if they got the right man.

The book feels and reads like "To Kill A Mockingbird" except the language is rougher when describing the black folks and the townspeople don't come across quite as genteel as TKAM.  That's probably because it feels closer to real life, but it doesn't make some of the reading any more comfortable.  It's a dark story pretty well told.

That said, I expected a bit more from an Edgar Award winning book.  Perhaps it's quibbling to expect consistent detail, but when grandma has a 32 pistol in one sentence and when she later pulls it out a couple of sentences later, it's a 38, it's kind of jarring.  Same for the shotgun she was holding later that turned into a rifle.  Hey, this isn't Harry Potter!  There were also outcomes near the end that you could see coming for a while and that's always disappointing.  Still, if you like mysteries, this one is better than most.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Great Lakes Water Wars by Peter Annin

Most peoples of the world have taken water for granted, even when they realize it may be poisoning them and they are the reason for the poor quality in the first place.  The first U.S. clean water law in the late 19th century was passed not because the Hudson River was a cesspool, but because there were so many dead animals dumped into it that it became a hazard to navigation.

We've gotten better at protecting the environment enough that we don't harm ourselves as much as in the past, but the author makes the case that water will be the cause of some of the great political conflicts in this century.  Whenever it is cheaper to get fresh water from somewhere else rather than clean up the situation nearby, the local solution always is to get that other water. The Great Lakes contain about 1/5th of the world's fresh water and is an ongoing target for those schemes .

A recent example was a proposal in 2005 to take a large ocean-going tanker ship into Lake Superior, fill it with water, and transport the water to S.E. Asia.  There have been attempts to divert water out of the lakes for local and not so local consumption in the states bordering the Great Lakes and those efforts have resulted in a compact between the states and provinces bordering the lakes that is flawed and needs improvement to truly protect the Great Lakes over time.  Mr. Annin details the history of those efforts and the resulting compact(s) in a way that is very readable.  It's a fairly quick read and is a topic that is current in each area of the U.S. Current examples include Florida and Alabama fighting with Georgia over water for Atlanta, the Great Plains running out of water for agriculture, all of the Southwest, water diversion in the Northwest, and issues with supplying the greater New York City area. 

I'm glad I read this book, even though I would not normally have done so except it was my local book club's selection.  The environment is important but many environmental writers are so earnest and rigid that it takes away from the message.  That is not the case with this book. 

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell

The picture I copied online of the book cover came out a little fuzzy, which is appropriate for this book review.  David Mitchell is a good writer who leans a little too heavily on writing tricks to punch up this story of a modern Japanese 20 year old headed to Tokyo from the provinces to meet the father he's never known.  I like coming of age stories, which is probably why I stuck with this story-on-drugs in spite of the opening pages.   Eijie Miyake is not on drugs, other than an endless string of cigarettes,  but the story switches from LSD-like daydreams to crystal meth-fueled descriptions when he accidentally gets mixed up with brutal Yakusa bosses.  David Mitchell's reliance on switching from day dream to day dream early in the book almost had me put it down, but once it was apparent that any one paragraph might not still be in the same mode (dream, reality, somewhere in between) as the preceding paragraph, yet it would make sense as you stayed with it, caused me stay with it and actually enjoy the book.
Mitchell didn't need to use all these tricks.  The last book of his that I read, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet" was a linear told story that was beautifully written, with an interesting twist about a third through the story.  "Number 9 Dream" is no less interesting, and I liked Eijie as he wrestled with past memories, regrets, resentment and hope.  When I got to the end, I wanted it to keep going because I cared about Eijie and his friends and relatives and we were left hanging as to their future.
The more I thought about it, that was part of the reason Mitchell used some of his techniques, since the idea that the world is seldom as it appears and our futures are controlled by the unknown, with the rules changing just as we think we are winning or loosing, is the central theme of the book.  It reminded me of books by Haruki Murakami, who Becky likes (as do I) so that's why I decided to post.  If you figure the reality jumping may be too irritating, skip the book.  If you're willing to give it a shot, it's a good story with many interesting characters and some satisfying outcomes.  Of the family, I'm guessing only Becky would like it, but for other readers, if you like Murakami, you'll probably like this.

Monday, September 30, 2013

1491 by Charles Mann

Having a (slightly) nerdy side, the family knows I think the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" is pretty cool.  Don't stop reading yet, just hear me out.  The idea behind that book is that the reason Europeans invaded other countries and took them over rather than the other way around (think the Aztecs taking over Spain) is that the combination of the devastating effects of European diseases on the invaded peoples combined with advanced technologies aided by written language gave the Europeans a distinct advantage.

Now comes Mr. Mann's book that is an interesting add-on to that line of thought, with a twist.  Part of the thinking has been that in most of the Americas, the natives were a somewhat docile population blended into the landscape, ready for  easy conquest.  It's mostly what we were taught in school and experience in our popular culture.

Mr. Mann contends that there were a lot more people here, who had been here much longer than many of us thought (maybe 20,000 years vs. 13,000), who had diverse modes of government, land management, plant and animal domestication, and a degree of cultural sophistication than was the equal or more to European cultures of the 15th century.

It appears that the disease effect was probably the balancing factor, since native populations may have been reduced by anywhere from 50 to 90% of what they had been only decades prior to European disease introduction.  It's a big "if" but it is likely Europeans would not have been able to gain any substantial foothold in the Americas without that devastation, because the eastern North American tribes and especially the Central and South American nations had enough tribal or regional cohesiveness along with an ability to match European weaponry and tactics that they could have easily repelled them.

The take-over did happen, though, so many folks would ask "so what?" in discussing the pre-Columbian nature of the Americas.  It's a matter of perspective.  What we experience now appears to have more contribution by those native peoples, to include food and even our form of government, than most of us knew based on what we were taught in school.  It also gives pause for thought whenever there is discussion of returning to some previous condition (the good old days) of politics, societal norms or even the environment.

As is the case with any book trying to examine a theory this broad, it's easy to disagree with some of his conclusions.  However, it is a worthwhile read for a valuable change in perspective to how most of us have seen the world until now.  It's a long book at 391 pages, not including footnotes and appendices, so you working folks might take the book in chunks if you tackle it.  Still, I'd recommend it to everyone in the family.  If you liked "Guns, Germs, and Steel" you'll like this.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Dad is Fat" by Jim Gaffigan

I ‘have children’ like I ‘have male pattern baldness.’ It is an incurable condition, and I have it. Symptoms include constant fatigue, inability to sleep, and, of course, extreme sleep disruption.

So, I bought this book because I wanted something light and funny, and because I’ve really enjoyed Jim Gaffigan’s standup in the past. Also, I have an affinity for Comedian Books (which really should be a category) – Tina Fey, Ellen…..ok, so just those two. But that counts!

Anyway, while I did get a few laughs, I think the reason it wasn’t quite as funny as I’d hoped was twofold – 1, part of the art of stand-up comedy, in my opinion, is the delivery – with full-on facial expressions, timing, etc., which you don’t get with the written word as well and 2, I’m not a parent.

Actually, I was going to make one of my parent friends read it and then tell me what they thought so I could have a more diverse focus group for this review (and by diverse, I mean 2 people). But then I forgot and now it’s Friday and so….sorry, you just get my opinion!

Basically, this is my take on the book: if you like Jim Gaffigan and think he’s funny AND you’ve procreated, you’ll probably laugh out loud throughout this book. If you like Jim Gaffigan and think he’s funny and you’ve only THOUGHT about procreating sometime in the future, you will laugh out loud a few times during this book and also may contemplate getting your tubes tied. If you like Jim Gaffigan and never want to have children, why would you buy this book?

So there you have it. Watch a few of his standup specials, judge your laughing meter during said special, and then go to your local bookstore (aka Amazon) and decide for yourself! Personally, I think Amanda would like this book and that mom and dad would probably be fine just reading funny quotes by it. So…..enjoy! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Time and Again by Jack Finney

Every so often I like to liven up my reading list with older books that I might have missed when they first came out. Time and Again, first published in 1970, was brought to my attention last year after reading Stephen King's 11/22/63. King called this novel the best time travel story he had read. So, I decided to give it a try and I'm very glad that I did!

The story begins in November 1970, when the narrator, Simon Morley, a lonely and bored advertising sketch artist in New York City, is approached by an Army officer offering him an opportunity to participate in a secret government project. The project involves an experiment to test if it is possible to send people back to the past through self hypnosis. During his training, Si is told that "we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present and future really are...We think the past is gone, the future hasn't happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see...As Einstein himself pointed out, we're like people in a boat without oars, drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can't see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But it's there."

Intrigued by the proposition, Simon cautiously agrees to join the project and is given the assignment to time travel back to New York City in 1882. Before you know it you, too, are taken along on a most exciting and enjoyable adventure, traveling back and forth between the 19th and 20th Centuries. Finney's meticulous attention to detail, period-appropriate language and pacing made this one of the most visual and magical novels I have read. With regard to the pacing, at times you feel yourself slowing down as you read passages from 1882 and then sense time speeding up as you return to the 1970s. Finney also uses a very clever and unusual device to complement the text. Throughout the book, he inserts actual photographs of 1800s New York street scenes, and numerous illustrations, supposedly made by Simon Morley (remember, he was a sketch artist) that practically make the story come to life.

This book is a classic tale of time travel but it also contains plenty of romance, a good mystery and many interesting historical details. I highly recommend this book to everyone in the family...including our future son-in-law. It's a fun read!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Everyone in the family knows I did not like Mr. Hosseini's first book The Kite Runner.  That book was well written but I disliked the main character so much that the good writing did not matter. It was rather satisfying when that character returned to Afghanistan and got severely beaten.  He had it coming.  So I stayed away from the author's most recent book, even though Jackie thought I would like it.  Like most of her recommendations, she was right.

 The story starts in the middle of the 20th century in a small village in Afghanistan and spans back decades and forward to current time.  The opening chapter sets the stage beautifully for what comes next, which is a richer and more polished story than his first.  As the two children at the center of the story travel different paths, they open up to other well developed and interesting characters who ring true and make for a satisfying story.I particularly liked that there were opportunities for the author to revert to heart-warming outcomes that would have been too much and would have cheapened the story and yet he avoided those openings and had more true-to-life outcomes.  That said, the outcomes work and I gladly would have stayed with a longer book to see what happens next.  There are any number of scenes I could say more about but it would ruin the pleasure of discovery.  Becky and Amanda both would like this.  Jackie already does.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is a tough book to review.  I've read other reviews of the book to look for a way in and most folks say the same thing; best book they've read this year, a fantasy story of a sort because it contains two mythical creatures, a serious piece of literature that deals with life issues well without focusing on those issues rather than the story, a great historical novel, a love story.

Those ideas give you a hint at this book but they still don't quite capture it.  A Golem is a creature from Hebrew mythology that is made of clay and brought to life through an incantation to serve as a slave to one master.  A Jinni (there are many types) is a creature of fire from Arabic mythology that does not willingly become a slave but can be captured by a wizard and made to perform tasks and grant wishes.  In this story, both are brought to the tenements of lower Manhattan around 1900 and set free in a way.  They struggle to make their way in the respective Jewish and Arabic communities with the help of one human in each community who understands what they are and decides to be a mentor. Inevitably they meet and understand they are in the presence of an "other" like them.  The story has a flow that constantly draws you in and along, with every character, no matter how minor, being well drawn and true to life.  The twists and turns were interesting and I did not see most of them coming.  The conclusion was satisfying (for me) and did not seem contrived, and I could not have told you the ending even when I was ten pages from the end.

This is a wonderful achievement for any author and stunning for this first time author.  It is as good as any book by Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman and can be favorably compared to any novel I've read in the last number of years, regardless of genre.  It is fantasy in the way Salman Rushdie is fantasy but is more accessible and better plotted.  I recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Detroit by Charlie LeDuff

As a Michigan native, I was drawn to this book because I, like so many others around the country, are morbidly fascinated with the city of Detroit. Growing up, we went there for Tigers games and the art museum, for a bite to eat and a show at the Fox theater a few times a year, if that. But we didn’t shop there, we didn’t walk downtown, we didn’t frequent any parks or marvel at the skyscrapers.

And we didn’t do any of those things because you can’t do those things in downtown Detroit.

I have friends who are hardcover Detroit City lovers, and I am too, in a way. But I’m not na├»ve and I’m not blind to the realities of what is happening and has happened there over the last five decades or so. It’s one thing to get excited for the potential that it holds – the young artists and entrepreneurs who are and have been moving in over the last few years, the first mayor in more than thirty years who actually seems to give a crap about the city and its future.

But Detroit went bankrupt for a reason, you guys, and it’s no clearer than when you read Charlie LeDuff’s portrait of this crumbling American city, once thriving under the car industry and booming with promise.

Get ready, though, because he doesn’t paint a pretty picture. He’s not looking at Detroit through the lens of an optimistic artist. He describes frozen corpses, burning houses, corrupt, thieving politicians, strung-out derelicts, and  murdered children. And he points out that these occurrences are as common and as unremarkable to the jaded citizens of Detroit as the Empire State Building changing colors every day is to New Yorkers.

But it was a book I’m so glad I read and one that gave me both perspective and odd hope for the city that once was. LeDuff paints a grim picture, but he does it through stories laced with facts, both good and bad - as any good journalist does.

The only criticism I have of the book as a whole is that it’s one of those that you really have to be in the right mood to read – there were times I’d pick it up, read a few pages, and put it down because it just wasn’t gelling. And then there were other days where I couldn’t put it down.

So, I’d highly recommend this to anyone in the family (and outside of it), but maybe also have something a little more upbeat to jump to (like Stories About My Underpants!) when the going gets tough and Kwame Kilpatrick kills another prostitute.

Just sayin’.

Happy reading! 

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Delicate Truth by John LeCarre

Spy stories vary but seem to fall roughly into two categories.  The most common at the moment is the person on a mission who's allowed to kill people, often with new-age gadgets (Bond) or the person with super-human abilities who also ends up killing lots of people (Bourne).  In the other camp are mostly normal human beings leading supposedly normal lives but who are actually spying, which might sometimes involve violence.  This second group has David Cornwell (pen name John LeCarre) producing books that feel very real.  It's probably because he was part of the English equivalent of both our FBI and CIA.  He doesn't seem to like those groups, especially the CIA, but has his Englishmen muddle through under murky circumstances to an often inconclusive end.  If you've read "Smiley's People" or "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy" and like his characters and multiple person focus to telling the story, then this book is for you.

In "A Delicate Truth" Cornwell mines the most current situation, which involves using private contractors to do work that used to be done by intelligence agencies.  Since it's a lucrative field, corruption lurks in the background and cover-up can be the outcome, especially if something goes wrong.  It does.  The resulting desire to do the right thing, which often depends on your point of view, propels a ripping good yarn that I think is one of his best.

The author's use of the English class consciousness and old boy network can be grating to an American reader, but it feels real.  His disdain for the CIA and apparently Americans in general may at least stem partially from working with those folks during the late '50s and '60's when the CIA did a lot of government overthrow but was less successful in actually gathering secret data and making good analysis.  In fairness, the English had their share of spies high in their MI6 who were working for the USSR, so nobody comes out clean in reviewing the history of espionage.  If you like that clear eyed view of the genre, then read this book.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

This is a first novel by outdoor magazine writer Peter Heller about those who inhabit what was once the state of Colorado after a devastating flu epidemic some decades from now.  This is not "The Road", with its most bleak of depictions of a post apocalyptic world, but it is mostly populated with people living in a kill or be killed existence.

That description is probably enough for many to stop and not bother with the book.  However, the upside is a compelling story interspersed with lyrical writing about hunting and fishing, flying, and a man's relationship with his dog.  The writing style is different, with a quasi-stream-of-consciousness rambling whenever you are inside his mind.  Heller could work on that some but I got into the rhythm and didn't notice after a while.

I've thought a lot about this book since reading it last month and think Becky would like it and know that Jackie already does since she read it as well.  If you skip over the idea that this fellow probably should have been killed off early on because he was and still is hesitant to just kill anyone who's still around, then the story works well enough and really moves along the farther you get into it.  At about 250 pages, it's a quick read and worth giving a try.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

A while back I posted another Tim Weiner book about the FBI called "Enemies."  It was so good I decided to read this one, which preceded "Enemies."  Like "Enemies" he takes a government institution and opens it up using the organization's own files plus many interviews.  In this case, it's the CIA.

Now you'd think that working with the CIA files would get you several tons of paper with most of the words blacked out.  However, so much previously classified documentation got declassified in the 90's and people were willing to speak on the record, this book only contains verified accounts, with no hidden sources or other obfuscations.

The main reason this is being added to the blog is the flood of recent discussions about current CIA clandestine paramilitary operations.  Part of that discussion makes it sound as if this is a new thing.  As this book points out, those types of operations constituted the majority of the CIA activities from the late 1940's onward, often to the detriment of actual spying and compiling intelligence information from the many U.S. agencies that collected their own covert information, including the military and the State Department.  The result was the overthrow of a lot of foreign governments in the 50's and 60's, but poor coordination of intelligence coming into the country.  The ultimate result was 9/11.

The current discussion around personal privacy reveals that many people hope there actually is some professional government agency that has the capability to put all the pieces together and find and stop bad guys while letting the rest of us live our lives unmolested.  That's a pretty tall order and is subject to abuse.  In this case, the CIA did such a poor job of collecting and diagnosing intelligence that the responsibility was taken away from them in 2005 when the Office of Central Intelligence was dissolved.  They still are doing paramilitary operations.  I hope they've been able to retain veteran and recruit high-quality new individuals who can do the difficult work of acquiring secret knowledge and putting all those pieces together.  In "Enemies" I came away hopeful that issues were being addressed and resolved in the FBI to give us an internal surveillance and protection organization that can address issues of the 21st century.  In "Legacy..." I'm not so sure we have that capability on a global scale.  If you liked "Enemies" you'll like this book but you may be less optimistic with the ending.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

You know how you watch a really good nature program and the narrator points to something growing on the ground and then ties it to some bird who dropped something that nature made it pick up in the first place ten miles away?  After a while you start to understand that this area has microbes, insects, birds, winds in the trees that effect leaves shaped just so, etc. and it's all tied together and you think "Holy cow, that's amazing!"  Well, this book is that show and then some.
David Haskell is a biology professor who I really wish I'd had as my high school biology teacher.  Haskell decided to stake out a little plot in a Tennessee forest about a meter square and watch it every day for a year to see what he could see.  He likened it to a Tibetan monk's sand painting in which all the universe could be witnessed within.  Seeing the whole universe might be a stretch, but you get a good sense of the interconnectedness of living things on earth in these beautifully written vignettes.  Each chapter is around 6 pages long and represents a day's observations and thoughts on those sights.  They're all good and some of them are really cool.  It flows, makes sense and is lyrical to boot.  I would read one or two of the days and put it down, only to pick it up again pretty soon to see what was next.  The book is 245 pages with footnotes added if you want to dive a little deeper into that particular day or fact. 
We don't see most of what is around us.  It's there and our senses pick it up but we filter it out and move ahead.  Professor Haskell does a beautiful job of gently pulling us back to our world and seeing it with fresh eyes.

Friday, May 24, 2013

April 1865 by Jay Winik

What most of us know about the American Civil War was that we had a terrible conflict for about 4 years, Lee surrendered to Grant and the war ended right around the time President Lincoln was killed.  Once the first surrender occurred, it just seemed to make sense that the country would be reunited and we would get on with our growth as one nation.

Jay Winik gives greater focus to those events with context and proposes that we easily could have been a country in a continuing, decades-long guerrilla war that may still have resulted in two or more federated governments within what is currently the continental United States.

This is not dry history.  He goes back to the country's founding and makes a pretty good case that the founders were unsure a federation of the scope of 13 individual states could remain as one for any length of time.  Almost immediately, states made noises and some efforts to break away, and these were all in the north east!  When we finally split in 1861, you had the 4 years of bloody fighting east of the Mississippi River but also had a terrible guerilla conflict west of the Mississippi for most of that same time.  If you've seen the movie "Lincoln" you know the passage of the 13th Amendment was a very iffy thing.  Had it not passed when it did, there's no telling what would have happened once he was killed, even including the following amendments that gave greater rights of citizenship to freed slaves.  Finally, General Lee was ordered to take his army and melt into the mountains and fight a guerilla war, as were the other generals leading major armies in the field.  Lee ignored that order and Grant conducted the surrender allowing for all honors to the defeated army which led to the other generals also ignoring that order and following Lee's lead.  All or most of these actions occurred in that fateful month.

The issue with any historical speculation is that it's just that - speculation.  Each time there is a guess as to what might have happened, you can say "or not."  Yet Winik does a pretty good job of presenting a good argument that may not sway you completely to all his conclusions but does have enough strength to make you think about it.  If you like history at all, this one is worth your time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

“It’s time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table.”
 – Sheryl Sandberg

More than half of American women are the breadwinners in their households, yet they still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. This is likely not news, but for a while it seemed as if we’d been pretty silent on the subject. 

However, back in March, a new book by Sheryl Sandberg sparked a lot of conversation – some thought what she said struck a chord, others found it controversial, hypocritical, or elitist.

So I decided to check it out for myself.

I’ve always been interested in why, in 2013, there are still some pretty glaring differences in earning power between men and women, and have wondered how I can circumvent that so I don’t fall into the trap myself. And while I learned a lot of incredible, relevant, and eye-opening things while reading Lean In, I think the biggest takeaway for me was simply: “Sit at the table.” 

You’ve got to be in it to win it, ladies!

Also, I take issue with much of the criticism of the book. Some say that Ms. Sandberg’s advice was too critical of women, saying that we need to change the way we behave in the workplace to better position ourselves for leadership roles. The other is that her advice only applies to an elite circle of women.

The first point I understand. She does talk a lot about how we, as women, need to be aware of the fact that gender in our society, whether we like it or not, does play a role in how we’re perceived – both by men AND women. And I think it’s wise that we don’t pull the wool over our eyes and pretend like this isn’t the case. So the fact that she addresses this point and gives advice on how to work with it is something I found quite useful. 

The second point I didn’t notice at all. If anything, she acknowledged several times that she comes from a place of privilege and realizes that many do not. She also acknowledged that “success” can be measured in many different ways, and it’s up to us to define that for ourselves.

Basically, if you couldn’t already tell, I really liked this book. It made me feel empowered and enlightened, and helped open my eyes to things I see every day in my own working environment. It was an easy, quick read at less than 200 pages, and while I’m sure the majority of the people who pick this up will be women, I think it’d be wonderful if men were reading it, too.

So, what do you think, CB? 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Product Details

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is?...A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

So begins one of the most original, captivating and thought provoking novels I have read in a long time. Ozeki weaves together the story of Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia and Nao, a 16 year old girl living in Japan. Ruth discovers a plastic bag washed ashore near her home and wonders if it could it be debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami? When she looks Inside the box she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing several items: a man's wristwatch, a bundle of old letters and Nao's diary,"the diary of my last days on earth." Once Ruth begins to read Nao's diary there is no turning, too are drawn in and compelled to keep reading along with her.

A Tale for the Time Being is a complex and multi-layered novel. It is as much a mystery story, as it is a meditation on the passing of time, and an exploration of the relationship between writer and reader. Interestingly, the novels of Marcel Proust play a key role in telling the story. As Proust writes, In Search of Lost Time, "In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument..."

Interwoven throughout the novel, are an eclectic array of subjects- history, morality, World War II, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, bullying, suicide, animal spirits and totems- yet they blend together to create a unique and quite unforgettable story.  

A word of caution, though. While the prose in the first half of the book is beautiful, lyrical and eerily hypnotic, the second half will jolt you out of your trance with a much grittier and more disturbing tone. That said, the transition is a surprisingly effective device that ultimately pulls all the threads together and creates such a graceful, uplifting and wonderful story. I highly recommend it. 


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

English history, especially when it concerns the time of Henry VIII, is not for everyone.  It was a chaotic time, what with him cycling through various wives trying for a male heir.  We know he ended up with 6 wives and some of them met bad ends as he used various excuses to move on to the next one.
That said, Hilary Mantel has woven a fascinating tale from the perspective of Secretary to the King, Thomas Cromwell.  It falls to Cromwell to manipulate available circumstances to allow Henry to rid himself of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour.  Those lords and ladies who benefit by having Ann with Henry maneuver to avoid the break, while those who benefit by Jane stepping in spread rumors and try to hasten Ann's departure.  Since Cromwell is not a peer, he is mistrusted and looked down upon by most everyone in Henry's court.  For the time being, Henry trusts him and that allows Cromwell to proceed with the king's bidding.  You really don't need to know more than that about the circumstances, but it helps to remember that plotting against Cromwell normally turns out badly for the plotter.
There are a huge number of characters and you can become confused by Ms. Mantel's sometime lack of attribution as to who is speaking.  If you focus less on the names and more on Cromwell and how he dodges and maneuvers through each day, those names become less important.  You start to sense who is going to be alright in the end and who really shouldn't have done something to make Cromwell think less of him (or her).  We tend to look at history and assume the outcome was somewhat preordained, but this book hi lites just how tenuous not only the succession of the next monarch was, but also how Henry himself had to continuously move to remain in power and alive.  I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Product Details

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way."

The first sentence of Anna Karenina is still one of the most recognized opening lines in world literature. Considered by many to be one of the "best novels" ever written, this epic work was originally published as installments in The Russian Messenger over the span of two years (1875-1877). This novel contains all the necessary ingredients for a modern-day soap opera or cable TV series- love, family, betrayal, marriage, scandal, and forgiveness. Yet, this story is anything but trite melodrama. 

I recently spent two months reading all 923 pages of this sprawling masterpiece (Modern Library Edition). It was the perfect tome to hunker down with for the cold, snowy days of a Northern Michigan winter. Although the book was written almost 140 years ago, it is still surprisingly relevant, in many respects, for contemporary readers. It is a classic piece of literature that didn't feel like a chore to read. It definitely was not like One Hundred Years of Solitude. At least not for me.

As the title suggests, the character of Anna Karenina is the focal point of this fictional story. However, the novel is really about so much more than the consequences of one aristocratic woman's adulterous affair. Tolstoy's artistic prose weaves together a large and complex tapestry of characters, themes and plot lines, all set against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Russian society. In reading this book, at times it did feel somewhat like reading an op-ed piece. Tolstoy shared his own opinions- through the voices of the seven main characters- to expound upon his personal musings and moral beliefs about many of the most controversial topics of the day. He argues, for example, about such things as the virtues of rural vs urban life; or the distinction between class and society; faith and religion; as well as the emerging role (emancipation) of women in society. Anna, his tragic heroine, is made the poster child for what could happen if a woman stepped outside her "role" of wife, mother, caretaker.

Anna Karenina is a beautiful, emotional and insightful commentary on life. Read it for the love stories. Read it for the history. Read it to simply savor the language. It just might be one of the best books ever written. 


Friday, February 15, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

For all of you who believe computers and those who really understand them can solve pretty much any problem, this book is for you.  If you don't, well, it's still a fun read.
A tech-savvy guy gets laid off from a west coast start up and needs to find a job to pay the rent.  Being a clerk in an old style book store in San Francisco seems to fill the bill and the story gets strange and interesting from there.  The store is two things in one and the less obvious thing is interesting and mysterious.  The plot goes all over the place and our clerk/detective calls on some very capable tech buddies to figure out what is going on.  The characters are likable, the plot is kind of out there but worth holding on to, and the solution this crew is able to accomplish would be great if techies were always this good.  Now if this same group could keep software issues that I use from crashing my computer and telling me I've made a fatal error, I'd be a happy camper.  Enjoy.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin by Calvin Trillin

You might have seen Calvin Trillin on John Stewart or Steven Colbert's show.  He's a man in his 70's with a very dry wit and his writing is the best blend of James Thurber and Mark Twain.  Perhaps it's why this book won the Thurber Prize.  The book is a collection of articles he has written over the years for The New York Times, The New Yorker and other magazines.  They are grouped in sections with different headings and each heading has a blurb to set the stage.  Here are a few of those blurbs.

The Media - Liberal Elite And Otherwise "When I was a writer at Time, I tried to escape from the Religion Section by writing 'alleged' in front of any historically questionable religious event - the 'alleged parting of the Red Sea,' say, or 'thirty years after the alleged crucifixion.' "
High Society And Just Plain Rich People  "When my freshman-year roommate at Yale, Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, told me that after the war his family no longer dressed for dinner, I thought he meant that they showed up in their undershirts.  I said. 'My mom would have never allowed that, Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, and I'm talking here about Kansas City.' "

This book is laugh out loud funny. I couldn't help but start reading passages to Jackie and, in a tribute to Mr. Trillin, she laughed each time. She gave me the book for Christmas, but that doesn't mean she wants someone reading it to her when she has her own book to read.  I know Becky, Amanda and Jackie will like this one.  Beyond that, any of Becky's State News friends should really enjoy this, especially Mary.