Monday, December 26, 2011

A Game of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Everyone has been talking about Game of Dragons on HBO and I even read an article about George RR Martin in the New Yorker right around the time that the fifth novel in the series was released! I'm the type of person that would prefer to read the books before seeing any movie or show adaptations and since I'm sure that I will probably have time to read the first five books of the series before even the first season gets released onto DVD, I thought I would start now.

The book was first published in 1996/97 and won various awards for science fiction when it was released. I'm actually surprised i never heard of it or was ever given a copy given my penchant at the time for authors the likes of David Eddings and Terry Brooks. The novel alternates chapters with various viewpoints through which Martin introduces us to the noble houses of Westeros, a fantastical world that seems to be poised on the brink of civil war and endless winter. The first of three major plot lines follows Eddard "Ned" Stark in his home in Winterfell and the perils that his family faces, including becoming the chief of staff of the reigning King (Robert of Baratheon) and finding a litter of six dire wolf pups that have been seemingly abandoned by their mother (the House of Stark has a dire wolf as its mascot). The second plot follow life along The Wall, an isolated barrier not unlike the Great Wall of China that serves to protect the Northern Kingdoms (of which Winterfall is the seat) and all of Westeros from the forces of darkness beyond. The people that staff the wall are often the exiled that aren't welcomed in any other part of the country.We follow Jon Snow, Ned Stark's illegitimate son, as he becomes inducted into the "black," and follows in the footsteps of his uncle Benjen Stark. In the East, we are introduced to Daenarys Targaryen, whose family was removed from the Iron Throne of Westeros by Robert of Baratheon and Ned Stark many years before (when she was an infant). We follow her in her quest to have her family restored to grandeur and to get her family's throne back from the Usurpers.

The plot is very, very intricate making it very necessary to not try to summarize it completely here (or risk spoilers) and also making it necessary to read the books in the series back to back so that you don't forget all of the plot twists that you learned in the previous books. Each book is close to, if not more than, 1000 pages of wondrous description and plot intrigue. I often found myself either referring to the chart in the back of the book to remind me of characters or to the charts that I had made myself. I thought that Martin wrote the plot lines so wonderfully and with such depth that I found myself not wanting to put the novel down because I really wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters. I found myself relating to certain characters more than others (I really like Daenarys and Catelyn and Arya Stark) but all the characters seemed to be really deeply drawn, even the ancillary ones. I also appreciated that the characters and the situations that they were involved in were painted in shades of gray as opposed to being completely black and white, like some of these sorts of novels are. I appreciated this because life is itself shades of gray, and so even in fantasy, Martin makes the point that there are shades of gray. Through the situations and shades of gray, you begin to know the characters on an intimate level usually reserved for close family members and friends and in this manner, Martin manipulates you into a situation where you begin to form some level of attachment to the characters.

On a related note, the world itself is absolutely recognizable because even though there are elements of magic and fantasy, the way that the characters act are the ways that we as humans might often interact and react to the situations at hand. The magic isn't so overwhelming or over the top that it will turn you off. Martin is also an extremely talented writer - one that can come up with witty dialogue at the same time that he can write beautifully expressive and elegant prose that allows your senses to place you in the situation being described. And he demonstrates his ability over and over again to withhold information until the very last minute and that disclosure acts as a hook, making one want to read more an dmore and more (often to the detriment of all things real world). The transitions are usually not jarring even though the chapters move between the different perspectives of the various characters. More often then not, they are seamless transitions. Definitely a must read and addition to your collection.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by

So, I really like Alexandra Robbins, generally speaking. I have read other books by her - The Overachievers most notably - but I was drawn to this book because the premise was a noble one - to promote (at the very least) tolerance of the non-conformists in high school and, at the best, outright acceptance of the non-conformists. Her philosophy is also a noble one - to encourage acculturation and diversity and appreciation of those things instead of encouraging people to act like drones - thinking alike, dressing alike and talking alike. I think that a part of her also wants to stop the rampant bullying that exists everywhere from our schools to our workplaces. And I genuinely appreciate that - that message is an essential one to get out because that bullying sort of mentality exists even among adults in the workplace.

Her basic premise is also an easy one to understand and agree with - she essentially argues that the qualities that make people non conformists and outsiders in high school are the qualities that make those same people the most successful when they become adults, even if they are excluded in high school by their peers. The narrative follows seven outsiders during the course of one year: the popular girl, the new girl, the the band geek, the loner, the gamer, the nerd. It also includes a lesbian teacher. As someone who would classify herself as a nerdy jock, these categories fascinated me as did this book. I spent a lot of lunches in the cafeteria sitting with my friends as they played Magic (sophomore year), walking out to lunch (junior year) or talking about 90210 (7th grade), depending on what was going on. So I was really interested to see what she came up with.

The most touching parts of the book, for me, were the first person narratives of each of the main characters. I felt so particularly sad when I read about how Danielle joined a club in 7th grade, only to find out that it was the "I hate Danielle club," named as something else and, so, whenever she did anything in that club, not only was she stating that she hated herself, but her so called friends made fun of everything that she did. I also felt tremendously sad for the Gamer, Blue, who put his heart and soul into organizing tournaments for his gaming team only to be ousted by not only the other kids, but by the teacher who was acting as the teacher guidance counselor for the club.

The book, I thought, was well done in some regards and left some to be desired in other regards. I really enjoyed how Robbins made the science and sociological information very accessible for her readers. She broke down the research in a manner that anyone could understand. I also think that having first hand accounts of the experiences that the research discusses is a very effective way of demonstrating that the research is accurate to some extent (it also appeals to me on another level - I studied history in college and my most favorite class was an oral history class. I also think that primary sources are the best sources of information when it comes to history/sociological research). What was somewhat disconcerting, and somewhat dizzying, were the many jumps that Robbins took, often presenting us with many, many different experiences from the same character in the same chapter, but often split up over the course of the chapter. In one chapter, you could have stories told by one character, split up by stories told by other characters and the research segments, so it often got confusing and I often had to remember who was who and where they were in their experiences. It also seems like the information reported was reported second hand by Robbins. It's not like she was writing a transcript of a conversation that the interviewee recorded or that she recorded as she was observing the conversation unfold. The conversations and experiences were, it seems, reported to her by the subjects of the study, making me wonder about how much bias was also given to Robbins.

Altogether, though, this was a decent book that I was happy the tI read because it was easy to read, interesting (because I was one of the fringe to some extent) and served a pretty decent purpose.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Endless Love by Scott Spencer

As with most books, I heard this one mentioned on NPR and thought I would give it a shot. It was written and published the same year that I was born - 1979 - making it 32 years old but for some reason, I had never heard of this book or the author before.  I was, quite frankly, almost hesitant to read it because it is about teenage love.  Those books are never good, I thought.  They are self aggrandizing and boring - who wants to relive that angst again and again and again? I could just read my journals from that time period after all right? But this book surprised me.

The book opens in Chicago.  David, a 17 year old and the protagonist, is dating Jade, a then 15 year old. Jade's family are well known in town - they live a hippie-esque and bohemian lifestyle where just about anything goes.  They allow David and Jade to have sex in their house, they smoke pot and would be the type to provide condoms to their children and their children's sexual partners if they had been more readily available during that time. At some point though, they take a stand and bar Jade from seeing David.  David is absolutely heartbroken about it - it's absolutely more than he can bear. So one night, he elects to set fire to Jade's home by putting flammable materials on the doorstep and then stepping backwards to watch the house burn.  But things don't go according to we soon find out and by that time, the book has its claws in you so deeply that you can't stop reading.

I was absolutely captivated by this book and mesmerized. I was enthralled about the deepness of David's obsession with Jade and her family.  He goes out of his way to have contact with her, often to his own detriment (which I was curious about - I wanted to know more about why HE was so seemingly self destructive). The book moves slowly, but I didn't mind it at all.  The pace allowed me to completely savor each and every thought and sensation that David, the main narrator (we are viewing everything through his eyes after all) himself has and that was absolutely wonderful.  At some point, I may opt to re-read this book so that I can truly savor it.  Definitely pick this one up.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

E-Reader v. Actual Book: Which Do YOU Prefer?

As my e-reader (a first generating Kindle) slowly begins to die, I began to think about what is fast becoming a philosophical debate: which is better, an e-reader or the real thing?

On behalf of:

Perhaps not THAT particular e-reader, but e-readers in general. I like the idea of an e-reader in general.  It cuts down on the amount of space that I have dedicated to books (which, for someone like me, can be quite a massive amount of space) - and this was the reason that Izzy got it for me in the first place.  He was getting upset about the amount of space that was being eaten up by my book habits. It also makes carrying a TON of reading material on vacation with me that much easier and being able to update it when I'm done with a book and on vacation is super convenient. I so wish that e-readers had been around when I travelled to Europe because that would have made the long flights and travel time all that much more bearable. I have yet to try to download a book from the library but I intend to try to do so in the near future.

However, there is a lot to be said for: 

There is something to be said about how holding a book in your hands feels - you can turn the pages as you read, you can see how far you've come and how far you have to go (which for certain books, is much of the battle in getting through) and there is a certain satisfaction to be had in finishing a book, closing it and putting it on the bookshelf. However, you are limited in how many books you can take with you to a certain place - they are notoriously heavy and therefore hard to carry around and expensive to ship. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Like with most of the books that I read, I heard about this on NPR. This novel was Wilson's first and was wonderful.

Camille and Caleb are the heads of the Fang family and are known the world over as conceptual artists, with their roots in Slavic Eastern Europe. They have won many, many awards and receive many grants that would enable them to perform their art and not have to worry about earning the money to support their children: Annie and Buster (known to most of their fans as Child A and Child B). In order to memorialize their art, which often makes use of their children, they use video recordings. An example of their art is this: one day, the Fang family go to the mall.  Annie,Buster and Camille go into a candy store separately and un-attached, so there is nothing to attach them to each other. Camille begins to put candy under her dress and Buster tells one of the clerks about it.  The ensuing chaos is recorded for posterity by Caleb. As the children get older and enter into adolescence and young adult-hood, they begin to resist being used by their parents in performances and eventually outright refuse.

In the present time of the novel, Annie and Buster are living independently from each other and from their parents: Buster as a novel writer (who has published two novels) and Annie as an actress (who was nominated for an Oscar but who has begun to appear somewhat regularly in the tabloids). The Fang parents have also not presented any new art since Buster and Annie became independent.

This is both an entertaining and disturbing look at a dysfunctional family, a la "United States of Tara" and is very witty.  It is entertaining and not predictable - scenes that comprise the Fang "art" are loony and off the wall and completely unrealistic but are nonetheless funny and smart and fresh.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Firstly, I must disclose that I have absolutely been in love with Jeffrey Eugenides since I read Middlesex, a few years ago, so I may not be the most impartial of reviewers.  I eagerly awaited this new release of his and was happy when my name was up on the library's list.

In this novel, we literally follow a modern day Marriage Plot between three students at Brown University in Rhode Island.  They are on the eve of their graduation in 1982 - one is suffering from debilitating bi polar disorder (manic/depression), the second is Madeleine (who is brilliant and beautiful and sells herself short constantly) and the third is Mitchell, who is the journeyman and travels through Europe and India.  All three students are brilliant academics, with their own interests and academic strengths, but who often mistakenly follow their sex drives in directions that lead one to wonder : WTF? We follow Mitchell on his journeys, Madeline through her struggles in dealing with a lover that struggles with a debilitating mental illness and Leonard, who struggles himself with the mental illness. What I also loved is that Eugenides somehow manages to capture the tensions and feelings of a late teen/early 20-something involved in these sorts of emotional relationships.  It took me back to this period of my life; it was as if I had never left.

The novel itself was wordy, but I personally love that kind of novel. I love losing myself in the minute details of everyday (and the non-typical everyday living as, for instance, we see when we visit the psych wards or a laboratory colony on the Cape), so this didn't bother me all that much. In fact, I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't expect any miraculous revelations to come out of this novel; it doesn't expand the boundaries of what we know about love triangles, college or mental health issues.  And yet, I found it highly satisfying to read and complete. It's not as good as Middlesex, but most novels aren't.  This novel is definitely better than most and gives some insights.

Definitely take the time to read this one.

Her Husband: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes - a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook

Ever since reading The Bell Jar, I have been in love with Sylvia Plath.  I loved her writing and her strong, strong feelings. So I have been reading everything that I could about her and her life, from her journals, to her letters and her poems.  So when I saw this book at the library, I picked it up and brought it home with me, even though it's not solely about Plath, but about the often volatile relationship that she had with her husband, Ted Hughes.

Diane Middlebrook examines the relationship between the two poets from the moment that they meet while studying in England until after Sylvia dies, and beyond.  She begins with their meeting and courtship and ends with Hughes' passing.  She must have done an immense amount of research in writing this book, because her narrative was very detailed and very articulate.  It was a pleasure to read, in part because I could tell that she was truly striving to give us an unbiased account of their relationship and what, in her opinion, really led to Sylvia's death - depression and anxiety and not necessarily Ted Hughes himself (since Sylvia apparently struggled with intense depression even before she met Ted, including a suicide attempt that left her underneath her porch to be found by her brother and then sent to the State hospital for electroshock therapy).

The message that I got from this book is that their marriage was often very intense and was the muse for each of them, in the sense that it fueled her poetry as it did his. I felt that this book gave me insight into Plath, just as much as Hughes.  When they first met, I realized that she was like me in some senses: she wanted it all in the sense that she wanted a home and babies and a wonderful domestic life in addition to a satisfying career as a writer.  And she thought that Hughes could help her to have that. I also got some insight into Hughes that I hadn't had before - he really wasn't the jerk that we all thought he was and perhaps truly loved Plath or at the very least, felt badly about treating her the way that he did during their marriage.  For instance, after her death, Ted Hughes managed her work and got it published and re-published.  He memorializes their relationships and his feelings for her in Birthday Letters, which he published after Plath's death.

While I'm not sure that I agree with Middlebrook completely about Hughes (really what excuse does anyone have to be mean and/or abusive to their spouse), the book is a wonderfully researched and informative read.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson

I was browsing in the library and saw this book. When I read the inside flap, I thought it looked really intriguing so I picked it up. After 9/11, I've been really interested in Islam and Muslim conversions.  I also had a pretty big interest in women in Islam - their role, how they perceive their roles and what the Koran says about their roles. This particular book intrigued me more then other books about gender and Islam because G. Willow Wilson is a white, American woman that converted to Islam after studying Arabic and Islam extensively as a college student in Boston, living in the Middle East for some time and marrying an Arab man.

Before reading this memoir, I think it's safe to say that the readings I had done previously about women in Islam had been mostly negative: women were treated poorly and had to straggly mightily in order to gain some degree of recognition.  I think that this sort of portrayal leads the reader easily to believe that women that follow Islam are completely lacking in power or say at all in everything from their everyday life to who they marry and to the religious choices that they make. In this particular memoir, G. Willow Wilson narrates her journey from an atheist American to a Muslim woman who is getting married to an Arab, Muslim man. She attempts to explore the struggles that she faces in attempting to reconcile Western Cultural beliefs with Middle Eastern Cultural Religious beliefs and the religion that she is attempting to convert to. She explores the struggles that she had as a white, American woman attempting to convert and assimilate to the culture of the country that she was living in and she also attempts to describe the struggles that she had in surpassing the sometimes negative mindsets that she had with regards to Islam. In so doing, she presents a generally positive interaction and conversion.

This memoir was absolutely beautiful. I really enjoyed reading about Wilson's experiences in college and abroad.  I felt like she was completely honest and up front - she opened herself up in this memoir and her writing was fluid, accessible and beautiful.  Sometimes, I felt that I was standing right next to her as she was having an experience because I could smell what she smelt and feel what she felt on her skin or with her hands as she was feeling it.  It was astounding. Wilson was often brutally honest with us: she was particularly honest about her anxieties about converting and how her family would react. She was also nervous about how her background would impact her relationship with her now husband, Omar.  Wilson expressed a lot of anxiety about walking the line between asking questions to solve her ignorance and offending the people that she desperately wanted to accept her into their lives.

This was an honest and rich portrayal of an American woman's conversion to Islam and her take on women's roles in the Muslim world. I would highly recommend it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto

This book tells the true and heartbreaking story of David Reimer. At the age of 8 months, he suffers a botched circumcision at the hands of apparently inept doctors, who then refer David's family to a sex specialist by the name of John Money. Dr. Money, to use the term lightly and loosely, recommended that David's parents have him physically reassigned as a female and then suggested that they raise him as such. Dr. Money firmly believed and convinced David's parents that if David was physically re-assigned as a girl and then raised as a girl, he would grow up firmly believing and feeling that he was a girl. So that's what they decided to do after consultation.

As the experiment progressed (because that is what it was essentially - this was the first time that this sort of thing had ever been attempted), Dr. Money reported that David was adjusting wonderfully to being a female, but this was less than accurate reporting to say the least.  David was depressed and acting out at school. He had to be held back at least once in school. As a result, it was decided that they would tell David that he was really born a male and, as a result, he ended up reverting to a male, taking hormones and  getting a mastectomy.

I found this book to be really very interesting and immensely readable. I found that there was a really nice balance between the oral history and individual perspectives of the family and person that was impacted.  Colapinto somehow managed to win the trust of David and his family and was able to empathetically and touchingly describe the angst and tragedy that this family underwent while at the same time describing the scientific theories, politics and sociological issues that were in play at the time that this "experiment" was occurring. It was a harrowing and aching tale to read about that was offensive on so many levels:  that Money thought that he could do this sort of experiment on a human child and that then, he completely lied about the results for purely selfish reasons, at the doctors who screwed up to begin with and then started backtracking to cover themselves, at society and doctors who think that they know everything about what our children are made of and demand that the physical body is what actually makes the person and only the physical. It was extraordinarily and thoroughly researched.

This was a really good book - one that should be read - and when you are done, make sure to read the Wiki entry for David - it will break your heart further. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Banned Books Week - an honorary posting

So, Banned Books Week is a week dedicated specifically to books that have been banned.  It's a week set aside each year by the ALA. Banned books are books that have actually been removed from libraries and school curriculums; they aren't books that have simply been challenged.  Banned books won't be found in the particular library that you are in, if they have, in fact, been banned. Books are challenged and/or banned for three main reasons: containing sexually explicit material, containing offensive language or being unsuited for any age group.

Examples of books that have been challenged are: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1984 by George Orwell, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Native Son by Richard Wright, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie, Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hunger Games by Susan Collins, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

So, my rant.  Banning and challenging books is absolutely garbage in my mind.  It's nothing more than censorship dressed up as concern and good parenting. No. I respectfully disagree (and sometimes not so respectfully depending on my mood).  In my opinion, good parents don't look to stunt their child's intellectual development or exposure to different ideas simply because they disagree with those ideas.  By doing so, I firmly believe that you hold your child back from reaching their full potential.  Additionally, if the concern is that your child may be exposed to things that you consider to be immoral, perhaps you should be taking a more active role in talking to your child about what they are reading and why you believe that it is immoral.  Having conversations like this and trying to teach your children about your viewpoint and what you consider to be right or wrong is part of your job as a parent.

As a lawyer and blogger and avid reader, I also find the banning of books to be completely offensive to everything that our Constitution and our laws stand for.  The First Amendment is absolutely one of the bedrocks of our society.  Granted, you can't walk into a theater and shout fire, but literature is hardly akin to that situation at all.  It's censorship, pure and simple and I don't see any difference between the burning of books that the Nazis in Hitler's Germany engaged in and the banning of books here.  It absolutely makes me sick that in 2011, we still have to have the discussion about censorship and banning books.

Here are some resources that I thought were good:

Just my two cents!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"There Are Things I Want You To Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson

This is a memoir written by Eva Gabrielsson, Stieg Larsson's life partner, in which she details her life with Mr. Larsson and the complications regarding his legacy and his estate which his untimely death caused. Stieg Larsson is the author of the insanely popular "Millennium Trilogy," which includes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The book was initially written in Swedish and translated into English in 2011, and begins with diary entries that Ms. Gabrielsson wrote in order to help her cope with the grief of losing a man that she had been in an extensive relationship with. Gabrielsson apparently took the title for the memoir from a letter that Mr. Larsson had written to her before a trip to Africa that he thought that he might not survive. The memoir details how the couple met and how Stieg tireless fought the right wing fascist movement.  He was also a tireless crusader for the rights of women, having become a feminist after witnessing the brutal rape of a girl during his youth.  As a result, he and Eva were often placed in danger and often received threats. Ms. Gabrielsson states that the major reason that they never married was because their marriage would make him an easy target for his enemies on the right, a valid concern after they received hateful voicemail messages and bullets in the mail.

She further describes the impact of Larsson's death on both her emotional life and her physical life.  Gabrielsson was, essentially, a wreck and became worse when Larsson's brother and father began to fight her over Larsson's estate and work.  Gabrielsson discusses feeling dispossessed and disempowered because she was not recognized as a wife, even though she and Larsson had lived that way for years.

I wasn't particularly thrilled by this book.  I felt like the writing wasn't that great and that it had been written and published with an eye towards getting support for a cause that might not otherwise have a lot behind it. I felt that it was too clean and that gave the impression of being disingenuous and dishonest.  Life isn't that clean.  I was left with a not so good taste in my mouth, as if the book was written to manipulate my feelings to get support for a cause and I didn't really like that.  I found the bits about Stieg Larsson's youth and life to be fascinating though, so if you're looking for information about that, the book does it justice. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan

No, this isn't the CBS series (which is also wonderful and a must see!), but a novel by Stewart O'Nan.

This novel follows the life of a seemingly ordinary woman over a tremendously long period of time: we meet her when she is pregnant with her first and only child and we leave her after her son has graduated from college and taken his first job. When we meet Patty Dickerson, her husband, Tommy, has committed a crime at the beginning of the novel while he is drunk and ends up serving a sentence of 28 years for first degree murder.  Patty gives birth to their son while Tommy is incarcerated.

I loved this short novel for quite a few reasons.  The novel is told from Patty's perspective, so you really get a good feel for what it's like to be in her shoes.  You get the sense of the time from the snippets of the outside world that seep into the small portion of Patty's conscience being that isn't preoccupied with Tommy, his case and surviving. For instance, at the beginning, Patty and her family watch Hawai'i: 5-0.  At other points during the novel, she talks about watching documentaries about the hostages in Iran that are freed when Reagan is sworn into office. This is also powerful because it highlights the isolation that Patty must surely feel, even though she is surrounded by a family, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one, that manages to bond together to support her and her son, Casey, in their years of need. Patty's life is difficult - her physical pleasures are few and far between. She lives from paycheck to paycheck and often works in the most demeaning and menial jobs that one can find - waitressing, roadwork and construction, housekeeping in a hospital - barely making minimum wage and working so hard just to make ends meet.

She struggles to raise her son, Casey, who is an overweight, sensitive, introspective but really f'in' smart kid that applies everywhere from Cal Poly to MIT and Cornell. While raising him, she struggles to impart to him that Tommy as a father is more than a concept, even though Casey has only known Tommy as the guy in the greens that he sees once in a while at the prison and on family reunion weekends, when he and his mom are allowed to spend the weekend with Tommy in a trailer on the prison grounds. Talk about tough...and yet O'Nan is able to convey all of these struggles in such an delicate and wondrous manner. There aren't any histrionics or fireworks and yet, you get the struggles that Patty faces and the marginality that she endures.

It also completely humanizes the families of the people that stand accused of crimes as well as the Accused themselves. This reason, in and of itself, would make this novel worth the read; however it on top of the other wonderful things that O'Nan accomplishes make this a must read for all.

Love it...a must read.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Wow.  That's all I can say about this powerful, gritty novel. NPR really picked a winner for this one.

Margaret "Margo" Crane is the protagonist of this novel - she lives in rural Michigan in the 1970's. When we first meet Margo, she is 15 but is no way your ordinary 15 year old teenage girl. Margo lives with her father on the river, after her mother abandoned them, and can shoot, skin and hunt like no one else.  In some ways, she's like her idol: Annie Hall in that she is a trailblazer - no other girls in the area are like her. Margo is often in extremely heartbreaking situations. Her uncle rapes her quite early on in the novel and she is such a good shooter that she manages to shoot off the tip of his penis. She also watches her father die in front of her and that is just the beginning of the heartbreak.

This book doesn't have a strict plot per se. It's more about how Margo learns about herself, learns to become self-sufficient and learns to accept herself for who and what she is. I found myself really liking Margo initially and, as I got to know her character during the novel, admiring her spirit, her gutsiness and her unabashed sense of who she was. She was who she was and she wasn't going to change it for anyone - you could take or leave it.  What you saw was what you got.  I loved that.  Campbell managed to write a novel that was raw and sharp in portraying Margo's life - her life isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination and often, I felt like I was reading about the lives of others that I have met during my life.  And yet, Margo doesn't give up. She keeps going and in the end, she perseveres because she has learned to support herself without the assistance of anyone, let alone a man.

Wonderful, powerful, amazing. a must read for this year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

Reading seems to be the only way for me to escape these days.  I picked up this book because the premise was interesting but to be quite frank, it ended up falling flat for me.

In this novel by Gabrielle Donelly, the Little Women that we all know and love aren't the main characters per se: they are the foremothers to the main characters in the novel. Emma, Lulu and Sophie are sisters and their great-great- grandmother is Jo March. Of course, her sisters are Amy, Meg and Beth. Emma, the oldest, is smart (but not brilliant), has a settled career and is soon to be married.  Lulu is brilliant but less settled - she doesn't have a job even though she graduated at the top of her class with a science degree (chemistry I think) and on the romance front she doesn't appear to have many prospects either.  Sophie is the youngest and a flighty actress.  They live in London - their American mother and English father also live in London in a house where Lulu finds old letters to and from Jo March in the attic.

I loved Little Women - it was a fantastic book and I absolutely loved reading it. Of course, Jo was inspirational and Beth and her short life were sad.  So I was really hopeful that this book would pan out. But it fell flat. I didn't find the premise or the characters or anything about the novel original. It was as if Donelly had taken Little Women and tried to adapt it to modern London.  The characters were so obviously modern day versions of the Little Women and the other characters in Alcott's novel. This annoyed me to no end - if you're going to do something like this then come up with something new. And because Donnelly seemed to be a creative and decent writer otherwise, I was even more disappointed in her inability to come up with a novel idea.

Pass on this one.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Catching Santa (The Kringle Chronicles, Book 1) by Marc Franco

Just to be up front, I got this as an advance reader copy to review from LibraryThing.Com.

This is the first in the Kringle series by Marc Franco and is a young adult novel.  In it, Jakob is an 11 year boy that is easily distracted, doesn't pay attention and can often be found doodling in class instead of listening to his teachers. On the last day before Christmas vacation, Jakob is teased mercilessly when his classmates steal some of his doodles (featuring Santa!) and pass them around to each other. Jakob, later that day, receives two mysterious emails from S.R. that essentially tell him that the best way to make people who don't believe in Santa actually believe in him is to catch Santa. Later on in the novel, we learn that the main antagonist from the day before break - Rick- is missing and actually makes a panicked call to Jakob, prompting Jakob to being his search for Rick and eventually, Santa himself.

The story itself was was a tremendous story. I enjoyed it and I think that it would appeal to younger children as well - there is a lot for them to relate to and to imagine.  However, there were some drawbacks that would make me hesitate to recommend this for a child say under the age of 7.  Mr. Franco uses some words that may not be understandable to younger readers. Some words used by Jakob aren't words that I would think that an 11 year old would understand, let alone use in their everyday speech. For instance, the word portly is used - what 11 year old actually knows what that word means let alone uses it?  Other words, such as hyperactive, appear when Jakob is talking, which is also unreasonable for most 11 year olds. The editing also needed some work - there were a lot of run on sentences that could have been split into multiple sentences. It was a good first book, with good ideas and showed a lot of creativity and potential.  Hope to see more from this author.

Simple Justice by John Morgan Wilson

So, I had never heard of the Benjamin Justice mystery series and I'm not quite sure what led me to request this particular book from the library.  I was immediately drawn into this novel by John Morgan Wilson.

In the first of the series, a young man is murdered outside of a gay bar in Los Angeles.  A young Latino man is found kneeling over him and is arrested and charged with his murder. Perhaps most damning, he has has confessed to killing the young man that he has been found with.  The young man turns out to be related to a wealthy family and is also discovered to be a coke head. Benjamin Justice is a disgraced journalist - he had written a series for the LA Times that had won him prestigious awards and was soon discovered to have been completely made up - and also struggling with alcoholism and the loss of his partner.  He is asked by his former boss to look into the murder of the young man, so he does.

I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book when I first started it but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Mr. Wilson's writing style is simple and the novel is a quick read.  But appearances can be deceiving - this book is hardly shallow or simple.  Benjamin Justice is a character that is deep and has extensive mental and physical wounds and an intriguing back story and current struggle that quickly hooked me and made me want to know him more.  He was the sort of character that, if he were a real, live person, would be someone that I would take out to lunch or dinner in the hopes of learning more about him and his life experiences.  The cast of characters that flesh out the book are also memorable, although I found that some of them could be stereotypes - for instance, the brother of the young man charged with homicide is a colorful, homophobe complete with violence and guns.  He was so predictable and so stereotyped and that turned me off a little bit.  I did enjoy the issues that Mr. Wilson tried to take on in this book - the AIDS epidemic in the gay male community in LA, some homophobia (yes, the out and out violent type, but also the more subtle type - a woman who is obviously attracted to Ben Justice and is constantly making both physical and emotional passes at him in the hopes of changing him), the struggles of being in the closet.

Generally a pretty good read.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke

I was mesmerized by the review that I read of this book in the Times.   I tend to enjoy reading books about colleges and prep schools and the strife that often occurs between students and/or within the students that are the center of the novel. So that's why I was drawn to this novel.

The novel focuses, mainly, on a New England all-male prep school in the 60's.  The school, which is nearly all white and is all male, is struggling with issues of race and socioeconomic status and the headmaster is trying to decide if the school should go coed when the first female is accidentally admitted (her name is Carole, a name that the secretary mistakenly thinks is male).  Not only is Carole female, but she is black and from the lower middle class, so she makes everyone uncomfortable.

This book was a bit disconcerting to read, although it ended up being moderately enjoyable. It was disconcerting because it often jumped around from first person to third person and often dealt with many different characters - sometimes you were learning about EV (the daughter of one of the prep school boys), the headmaster, Carole or EV's mother and it often took me a few pages to get used to the change in voice and figure out who I was dealing with exactly.  The characters themselves were what made the book enjoyable. They were engaging, multi-faceted, entertaining and three dimensional. I wanted to see more of them, learn about the challenges that they faced and were facing and I wanted to see them through until the end.  They made the novel worthy of the limited amount of time that I have to spend on books.

Moderately enjoyable enough to get out of the library but probably not enough to buy.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo

I have loved Richard Russo ever since I read Empire Falls way back when.  So when I saw this book in the library I picked it up and brought it home.

This is a collection of short stories about mundane, ordinary lives.  But I was still enthralled and absolutely enamored nonetheless. Russo has a way of depicting such lives in a way that you absolutely can't rip your eyes away from, no matter how "boring" you would think that they would have been normally. Somehow, Russon manages to draw you into these lives and make them interesting.

Perhaps the best story in the book is the title story.  It is about a nun who was born out of wedlock to a woman that worked as a prostitute and who had, essentially, had her pimp drop her off at the school run by the nuns of the order when she was a young child.

All of the stories are a pleasure to read. As I say, Russo has a way with words and draws you into the lives of the characters so much so that you just can't rip your eyes away. A must read.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Halfway House by Kathleen Noel

I was at the library one day picking up one of the multitude of books that I had requested (you know, because I had seen it on NPR or something) and I was walking by a book display and saw this novel in it.  I think the display was about summer reading or something like that - and I was intrigued, so I picked up the book and read the inside flap and decided that I would get the book.

Angie Voorster is 17 at the start of this novel and she is everything, seemingly, that you would want your daughter to be, at least on the outside. She is a star athlete - a swimmer that has broken, is breaking and continues to break records - and she has a future in swimming at a division one school. She is also a straight A student, making her a candidate for the Ivy League. She lives with her mom (Jordana), her dad (Pieter) and her younger brother, Luke, who is also a swimmer.  Things seem to be going well until, in the middle of the boys' race, she dives headlong into the pool and to the bottom, convinced that she can breath underwater.  Thus begins Angie's struggles with seemingly depthless mental illness (I think bipolar disorder because she is alternately manic and then depressed). The book focuses on Angie's battle with her mental illness and her family's struggles to deal with their loved one's illnesses.

What was absolutely wonderful about this novel is that Ms. Noel is somehow able to channel the thoughts of a mentally ill person so authentically. Her novel's chapters alternate between all four family members, and are told in each of their voices. Angie's chapters reflect her current mental state - whether medicated or not - and it was wonderful.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

I picked this up because it looked intriguing to me and boy, was it fantastic.  In this novel, Christine is a middle-aged woman who has a bizarre form of amnesia.  She cannot remember anything from day to day and whenever she goes to sleep, her memory is wiped clean. Each morning, she wakes up and has no clue who she is, where she is, how old she is or any other bits of knowledge that we take for granted. Imagine having to re-create your entire life history each day that you wake up - that's what she has to go through. She lives with a man named Ben - her husband - and her only way to remember is by reading the journal that she keeps daily.

This is SJ Watson's first novel and I hope that he will continue to write more for us because it was fantastic - a good premise, wonderful writing and great characters. It was a page turner - I found myself constantly thinking about the novel, the characters and what would happen at inopportune moments. I also wondered when the next time that I could sit down to read the novel would be. The book is particularly jarring in the first few pages, but continue on with it - it becomes jarring because you have no idea what is going on and that is what makes the start of the novel and the entire novel itself brilliant - you experience what Christine is actually experiencing on a daily basis. And it is wonderful.  Totally worth it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

Jake Bergamot is your typical, upper middle class New York City student - he is 15, goes to a prestigious school and likes to party with his friends. At a party, he rebuffs the advances of a pretty drunk eighth grader. But, in the early morning hours, he gets an email with a salacious video attached to it - one that the eighth grader made specifically for Jake and for Jake only. On some level, Jake was honored but on another level, he was absolutely horrified and shocked by the lewd and lascivious video that ended up in his email in box, so he forwarded it to his friend, in part an attempt to get rid of the hot potato. And you can see where this goes. Within a few hours, the video that was private initially has been posted everywhere on the internet and has thousands of hits. As a result of this video gone viral, Jake's and his family's lives are turned upside down.

Schulman's book raises a lot of good themes: privacy in the internet age, shame, gender roles, internet protocol, and how they all intersect with each other and with the law.  I particularly liked how Schulman focused on the domestic impact that this had on Jake and his family - I felt like it wasn't forced and was, somehow, more authentic.  It would have been too stereotypical if Schulman had focused exclusively on the girl that made the video. I also thought that it was really noble for Schulman to attempt to take on such extensive themes and topics as the ones that she has taken on. However, it was a tad predictable in its outcome.  I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style itself - it was quick and not complicated and easy to break into small segments (essential for a mom!).

Get from library but don't add to your own personal collection.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

This was hands down one of the best books that I have read this year.   Geraldine Brooks has absolutely outdone herself with this novel.

Caleb's Crossing mostly takes place in 17th Century Martha's Vineyard and 17th century Cambridge (most notably, Harvard Yard).  Bethia Mayfield is a teenage Puritan whose family is quite wealthy by colonial standards - her grandfather is the founder of the island itself and had emigrated there in order to establish a haven that was outside the purview of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bethia is an intelligent young woman, who learns Hebrew, Greek and Latin seemingly by osmosis - she listens in on the lessons given to her older brother and learns not only the ancient languages but the language of the native American tribe also inhabiting the island. Bethia also has an aptitude for wandering and, during her wanderings of the island, meets a young Native American man who is eventually adopted by her family and renamed Caleb. Caleb is tutored extensively by Bethia's father and eventually "crosses" into Anglo-American culture, thereby earning the title of the novel. We follow Caleb, Bethia and her brother, Makepeace, as they travel from the island, to prep school in Cambridge and, eventually, to Harvard University.

I loved this novel.  I loved Bethia quite frankly.  On some level, I connected to her internal struggle. She was continuously struggling to answer the question of how to exist within the narrow confines of what society dictated that she be, even though she was so much smarter and empathetic than society would allow her to be. For instance, she was so much smarter than her brother, Makepeace, especially with regards to the classics. However, while her brother got the opportunity to at tend prep school and, potentially Harvard,  Bethia was indentured to the dean of the prep school in order to enable her brother to become educated.  Bethia also was particularly empathetic and friendly towards Caleb and the other "salvages," often considering them her friends and often viewing them sympathetically and as friends and family; however, the majority of the society around her viewed them with repugnance. What I also particularly loved about Brooks' narrative is how authentic it seemed - Brooks wrote the novel in colloquial speech, never once breaking from the speech patterns and written patterns that a woman in Bethia's socioeconomic status would have engaged in.  This level of authenticity went a long way in contributing to the richness and powerfulness of the novel itself. In this way, I felt like I was really inside of Bethia's head - hearing and experiencing her thoughts as she herself was thinking them.

This book is beautifully and engagingly written and a must read for all.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

This is a memoir by Ben Ryder Howe that follows his life as he works as an editor at The Paris Review while also buying and operating a deli with his wife and her mother. Howe and his wife, Gab, buy the deli as a last, Hail Mary, attempt to make enough money to move out of her parents' basement and into their own place. Howe hopes that the deli will make them enough money that they can either buy or rent their own space and begin their own family. Gab puts additional value on the deli - it's her way of giving something back to her mother, a Korean emigre who raised Gab and her siblings seemingly on her own in a foreign country.

The memoir follows the intense ups and downs and the trials and tribulations of owning a deli in New York City. The trials include a mugging, busts for selling cigarettes to underage customers, fines and massive tax bills in addition to being taken advantage of by vendors and the weather alike. During the same period, Howe works at his day job - as a senior editor on The Paris Review during the last few years that George Plimpton ran it. Howe struggles at that job too, sometimes failing massively in a professional sense and also dealing with tragedy that would lead to most of the staff leaving for other jobs.

Howe may not be a successful businessman or a successful editor at an amateur magazine but he is an engaging and evocative storyteller.  This was a funny, down to earth and tremendously readable account of owning a small business in one of the biggest cities of the world. I often enjoyed learning about the day to day minutiae that he had to endure in order to work and own these jobs and his tangents often got a chuckle out of me.  Howe was able to talk about the places and people he dealt with in such color that you almost felt like you were there with them while all the action was occurring.

Go out and get this one right away.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon - contains spoilers

This book is the third book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  I read Outlander, the first book in the series, years ago and then Dragonfly in Amber in October right around the time that Gabby was born and the series will occasionally call to me. And call to me it did now, so I picked up the third book.

This book picks up where Dragonfly in Amber left off - Claire has returned to her own time.  Twenty years has passed by and it is 1967.  Clair is living in the United States with her daughter, Brianna and they are visiting in Scotland attempting to determine whether Jaime has survived the battle of Culloden.  Assisting them is Roger Wakefield, who maintains a consistent interest in Brianna romantically. Claire, Roger and Brianna must discover whether Jaime Fraser has survived and, if he has, whether any of them should go back in time to meet him. If she goes back, she must attempt to rekindle a romantic relationship with a man that she hasn't seen in 20 years and who could have changed, and who has a period of his life that she knows nothing about.

I adored this book - I liked it somewhat better than Outlander actually but not as much as Dragonfly in Amber. I thought that Dragonfly was really well done, historically and the research that went into it in order to get the time period was phenomenal. However, this book was phenomenal in the sense that the research was there and Gabaldon did a masterful job in balancing the historical fiction aspect and the romance aspect.  I generally get pretty turned off by books that are so over the top "romance" that everything else is sacrificed.  That wasn't present here.  Gabaldon did really well in balancing the romance aspect with what was going on historically at the time.  It was also apparent that Gabaldon educated herself extensively on the historical atmosphere of the time as well as certain aspects of the natural environment that the characters encountered - not an easy task - and is able to make us feel like we are there, in the middle of the scene and the action without overwhelming us.

This is not a book that should be read piecemeal - it is a long book and many of the things that happen in the beginning of the novel come back into play at the end, as do many of the characters, so it is best to devote a few days to this book in chunks at a time. This shouldn't be too hard because the book itself is very difficult to put down.

Loved it...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Favorite novel?

So I recently wrote an essay here about why I have two favorite novels and what they are. Please head on over there to read the article!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Post 100 is here!

And I'm reviewing The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva. I don't remember where I heard about this book.

Gabriel Allon is an aging and retired Israeli operative who has retired to the English coast with his wife, Chiara, in order to enjoy the good life.  Instead, an old friend has managed to wrest him from exile to find a missing painting - a painting created by Rembrandt - a pairing that has actually been stolen. The painting is the source of many dark secrets related to the Holocaust, its perpetrators and its victims and the dark side of Swiss banking that helped to perpetuate thefts and stolen money.

This is a mystery novel that details a multinational and eccentric group of people that are forced to work together in order to solve the crimes surrounding the money, the painting and the evildoers that have stolen it.  Very enjoyable and a wonderful novel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Great Journey by David McCullough

So I'm absolutely plowing through my books for the summer. This was another recommended both by NPR and by The NY Times.

In this masterpiece and monster of a book, historian (and Pulitzer Prize winning author) David McCullough (who wrote about John Adams the last time around) writes about the American expatriate community that lived in and around Paris during the 19th century - he focuses on the ENTIRE century, not just a small portion of it.  He chose this era to focus on because these expats inspired the expats of the 1920's and 30's in their journeys in and around Paris. In writing about this time period, McCullough looks at such figures as Samuel Morse, George Healy, Charles Sumner, Mary Cassatt, James Fenimore Cooper and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

This book was intriguing. It took me a relatively long time to complete the book - about 5 or 6 days (which is a long time for me) - but it didn't feel that long.  I attribute this in part to how wonderfully written the book was.  McCullough did extensive research in writing this book and looked at diaries, journals, letters and other primary sources of his subjects in learning about that time period. He also quoted extensively from those items.  It made me really feel like I was in Paris during that time period and actually inspired me to continue with my paper journalling (and maybe find a pen pal or two or three to write letters to!).

This was a wonderful book that you should hurry to read right away!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

This was again a book that I found on NPR's summer reading recommendations and it intrigued me initially because of the subject matter. It's a cross between drama/literature and crime but it isn't really any of both - it's not a crime novel like a novel by James Patterson would be but it isn't really dramatic literature either.

The book is written from the perspective of Dr. Jennifer White. At the time of the novel, Dr. White is a 65 year old retired orthopedic surgeon - she specialized in hands - who is suffering from Alzheimer's/dementia. There are days when she's completely lucid and knows what is happening to her and days when she doesn't remember anything, including her own history, children or caretakers. She is living in the beautiful family home in Chicago with Magdalena, her caretaker and is visited occasionally by her two adult children - Mark, a lawyer and Fiona, a financial analyst and college professor.  When she didn't have the disease and in her lucid moments, Jennifer is witty, sharp and, quite frankly a brilliant doctor. She was hugely successful in her career and in her volunteer work at a medical clinic that provided free services to people without medical insurance.

The narrative, because it is told from Dr. White's perspective, mirrors the decomposition of her mind as it is decayed from the dementia. We learn that aids are employed to help her remember - a notebook that people, including Jennifer and her family and caretakers make notes in, pictures, clothing - to help her remember what happens to her from day to day and even across longer periods of time.  Quite often, Jennifer is told to just write in the notebook about anything that comes to mind - from the things that just happen to her to the things that happened to her years ago that come to her mind unprompted. Sometimes, the story jumps from memory to memory in different time periods. For instance, one moment Jennifer will be talking about what is happening to her in the present moment and then, in the next, she is back when she was young or practicing medicine.  It can be disconcerting and, sometimes, confusing; however after thinking about it, I think that the author may have intended this as a way to have us experience, ins some sense, what it must be ike to have a disease like the one that Jennifer has.

The crime plot comes out bit by bit in Jennifer's narrative - she is visited occasionally by detectives from the local police department and family members of the victim. They ask her about her friend Amanda, who was found dead.

This is a fantastic (and potentially very important) novel about the impact of dementia upon a family and an individual. The subject is treated very well - with dignity and respect but also with an eye towards education. The crime plot wasn't really all that great, but it really is ancillary to the point of the novel - an educated woman suffering from a debilitating disease. Go out and get this right away!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Soul Clothes by Regina D. Jemison

In the manner of being ethical and up front, I wanted to let people know that I got this book from Librarythings for free to review.  Now onwards!

Soul Clothes by Regina Jemison is not a particularly long book - it is comprised of 44 pages and 12 poems, with a mostly African-American and law based leaning. However, I found that it really and truly packed a punch that I, at least, associate with a much larger, more dense book. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from it - I'm not normally someone that reads a lot of poetry, with the exception of a former co-worker's published works, so I was really hesitant at first.  However, I was pleasantly surprised.

The poems reflected Ms. Jemison's history and taught us a lot about her personal story, her feelings about topics from the criminal justice system all the way to religion and spirituality and relationships. I learned, for instance, that she went to law school and taught criminal justice and criminal law classes. I also learned her perspective on things like religion and the role that it played in her life. All in all, this was a wonderful and heartfelt first work of poetry and I look forward to reading more by Ms. Jemison.

Big Machine by Victor LaValle

At the recommendation, yet again, from the people at NPR, I elected to read this novel. I had never read anything by Victor LaValle before, even though this is his third novel apparently.

Ricky Rice is the flawed hero in this novel - he's a recovering heroin addict who has been summoned from his janitor's post in Central NY to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont by a mysterious man that everyone has taken to calling The Dean. While there, he and several other recovering social misfits become a group called The Unlikely Scholars and they begin to peruse newspapers from all over the country and investigated The Voice that spoke to the founder of the library at which they study. At some point, Ricky is selected by the Dean to go to California with another scholar - Adele - to assassinate a former scholar that has defected and has started his own rogue group intent on bringing down the Unlike Scholars. During his mission, we learn about Adele and Ricky and the lives that they abandoned in order to become Unlikely Scholars.

I found this book initially very difficult to get into - it was hard for me to see where LaValle was going with it.  But as I read on, I became more fascinated with the story and the characters.  Through them, LaValley attempts to answer questions that related to faith - how do people accept things on faith? Why is it easier for some than others? Can anyone do it or only those that have been "saved?" Do we even know what to believe in and why we believe in that or should believe in that?

It was a pretty interesting read.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I've been getting a lot of my reads lately from NPR and this is no different. NPR has consistently recommended quality books and continues to do so in this debut novel by Amanda Hodgkinson.

World War II survivors - a husband, wife and child - are attempting to re-create their lives together after surviving the war.  He was in the Polish Army and, eventually, the British RAF and spent time in France after getting injured.  His wife and child were refugees in Poland during the German occupation and spent most of the time in a refugee camp hidden deep in the woods of rural Poland. They are rescued by American liberators as the end of the war.  Superficially, the family has all the ingredients for a successful post-rescue life: a home in Britain, jobs, food, clothing and all the amenities. They even have a connection to the black market that will get them the things that they need for free and they have a car (which was almost unheard of for most middle class British at this time). But all three are changed, and have been changed by the war - they are not the same people that they had married and each have secrets that could, potentially, devastate the tenuous family life that they have set up in the house at 22 Britannia Road.

I think that this quote accurately summarizes a part of what made this book so powerful for me:
The boy was everything to her. Small and unruly, he had a nervy way about him like an animal caught in the open.
This book, in large part, was about parenthood and what it means to be a parent.  Hodgkinson attempts to answer questions about whether mothers and fathers have different priorities and handle things differently.  She also tries to define what makes a parent. Some of the scenes between mother and son, and between each person in the family unit were absolutely gut-wrenching and poignant at the same time. I felt that Hodgkinson also did a masterful job in describing and portraying the weight that all parents, and specifically mothers, must carry. It was also beautifully written.

The book was also a masterful portrayal of war and the impact that it has on the families that have lived through it. Granted, this tale was specific to people that have served in it and also been refugees, which may not necessarily always apply to many Americans' experience in dealing with war.  However, it is quite clear from the novel what the tragic impact of war was on this particular family.

A must read, although I am not sure that you want to actually purchase the book for your library.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Singular Woman by Janny Scott

So, I had read Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father a while ago - maybe during the election season - and was sorely disappointed in the seeming lack of attention that he paid to his mother even though she was, by all accounts, a driving force in shaping him. So when NPR had a story about this book, I immediately decided to get it.

Stanley Ann Dunham led a completely unconventional life from the beginning apparently.  Her parents gave her the first name "Stanley," although later in her life she often went by just "Ann" or "S. Ann" if she were writing something professionally.  As an adolescent, she moved to Hawai'i with her parents (who had eloped) and began to study Anthropology. Her love of anthropology, and industry/textiles in particular drove her life.  During her studies, she met Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan national also studying at the University of Hawai'i. At 18, she found herself pregnant with his child, so they got married and then divorced in short order when she found out that he was still married to a woman in Kenya, had two children with her and a third on the way. So, in essence, she became a single, divorced, teenage mother of a bi-racial child voluntarily at a time when society was, perhaps, not as accepting as it is today of any of those things. Ann eventually married Lolo Soetoro and moved to Indonesia in 1966, where she had Maya. Barack moved there with her in 1967 and was schooled there until high school, when he returned to Hawai'i to live with his grandparents and complete high school. Ann remained in Indonesia with Lolo and Maya, conducting research, working and writing her Ph.D. thesis.

The book relates Ann Dunham's life from her birth through her death from uterine cancer in 1995 and her struggles with health insurance, parenting and expatriate society.

This book was astounding and a book that I fully intend to keep in my library forever.  Janny Scott, an award winning journalist, shows that the awards that she was won were well deserved.  Her subject - Ms. Dunham - was well researched. Ms. Scott had read extensively from Ms. Dunham's own letters, journals, papers and notes and this was apparent in how extensively they were quoted throughout the book. It was as if Ann were telling us her story herself, instead of through Ms. Scott (which is what makes her such a good biographer and writer - she is, essentially, channeling her subject). Ms. Scott also interviewed the people closest to Ann Dunham, including the President himself and Maya Soetoro-Ng, his half sister, as well as other family members, close friends and co-workers. She was then able to cobble together all of this information into a beautiful and coherent picture of a multi-dimensional women that excelled in some areas while struggling in others.

Definitely a must read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz

I read somewhere, probably NPR (because that's where I normally get all of my stuff to read) that John Burnham Schwartz had a new book out but he's perhaps best known for Reservation Road, so I was determined to read this one first to see if I liked it before I delved into the new stuff.

After a wonderful, peaceful and idyllic summer concert, a youngish family is driving to their home one evening. The Lehrners think that their night has been perfect.  The couple pulls into a little gas station in Wyndham Falls, CT so that Emma, the eldest child, can use the bathroom. Grace, her mother, accompanies her. Ethan Lehrner, the father, remains outside momentarily with Josh, their son. He is there long enough to tell Josh to get away from the side of the road before he goes inside as well to buy some windshield wiper fluid. Within a matter of seconds, a dark blue car plows around the corner and hits Josh, throwing him feet into the air and away from the side of the road and killing him instantly.  This all happens in the first chapter. The car, driven by local lawyer Dwight Arno (who is accompanied by his ten year old son and who is in a rush to return him to his mother after a baseball game has gone too long) doesn't even pause; he continues on and tells his sleepy, groggy son that they have hit a dog.

In essence, the remaining portion of the novel is about how an average seeming family (not really *average* in the sense that both parents are moderately successful) attempts to cope with a tragic loss and a failed criminal investigation. It is also about how the driver, Attorney Arno, deals with his role as the person that hit a boy the same age as his son.

I was just beginning to cope with a massively painful ear infection (including a ruptured ear drum) while reading this book, so it's safe to say that I was somewhat distracted while navigating through this novel; however, it still managed to reach to me and talk to me. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that I have my own children, so I could relate to the feelings that Grace and Ethan had in dealing with the tragedy of their son's loss and their sense of a lack of justice. At the same time, I could also empathize with Dwight Arno because his life and his crime is the sort of thing that I deal with on a daily basis. I really enjoyed how Schwartz wrote this novel.  Schwartz, somehow, manages to have razor sharp insight into all of the emotions and actions of just about every character in this novel from Emma, (a "tween" girl) to Dwight (an alcoholic, abusive loser) to Grace (who falls into the depths of despair so much so that she can't get herself out) to Ethan, her husband, who will go to any length to figure out what happened to his son. Schwartz has a seemingly endless capacity to see into the depths of the souls of each of his characters; so much so that one wonders if he has ever experienced something like this before (or has known a family that has!).

I absolutely adored this book.  And I look forward to reading more by Mr. Schwartz in the future.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

I am finally catching up on my reviews - I've been so behind lately because of health issues but now I'm finally getting there!

Unfinished Desires is a fictional account of an all girls Catholic school - Mt. Saint Gabriel's - in the early fifties. The school is located in a small Southern town that isn't exactly known for its tolerance of anything other then Protestantism. We are told the story by Sister Suzanne Ravenel, who is telling the story to us as she writes her memoirs in 2001 at the age of 85.  Sister Ravenel was a student there and she was also the headmistress of the school during the 1951-52 academic year. Sister Ravenel is haunted by what happened to her during that year, and, in particular, the actions of the small, freshman class.

I particularly loved the characters that Godwin introduces to us, in part because they are so vivid and in part because they embody the narrative device that was used so effectively by Godwin.  There is Sister Ravenel, who is plagued by her secrets and her memories and is unable to move forward, even though time has not stopped for her. There is also Chloe, a shy girl who is orphaned and able to attend the school because she comes from a well off family and is a legacy. There is also Maud - a controversial and elusive girl mature beyond her years because she has to deal with the ramifications of being from a broken home - one in which her father has remarried, but her mother is single and living alone with Maud. There is also Tildy, the assertive and entitled girl that seems to be the root of all the problems. My favorite character was Madeline - Tildy's sister - who was like a breath of fresh air. She was smart and called it like it was. Sister Kate Malloy and Cornelia round out the cast of characters. Kate Malloy is known for her giving nature and her ability to get her students (the ninth graders) to push themselves to the limit while Cornelia is petty and known for her waspish tongue.

Each perspective lends a new layer to things and new insights into how memory may often be difficult to wade through and get beyond. I also really enjoyed how Godwin seemed to be making a commentary on the culture of mean girls and how the acts of one, maybe two, can ruin someone's life. Godwin did a masterful job of keeping the story in control and not making it sappy or over the top.  She gave it so many layers. And it was wonderful!

Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson

After reading Devil in the White City, I became a huge fan of Erik Larsen, so when I heard on NPR that he had written another book, I knew that I had to read it. I even thought enough of Larsen to actually purchase this book as a hardcover!

In The Garden of Beasts is the story of Hitler's Germany in its infant stages, when Hitler had just been made chancellor and Hindenberg was still President (and some control over Hitler) as observed through William Dodd (the newly minted American ambassador to Germany) and his daughter Martha (who was scandalous by anyone's standards, but perhaps more so considering the time at which she was living). Dodd was an interesting pick for the position - and it's made clear pretty early on that he wasn't FDR's first choice - because he is a history professor, extremely frugal, had no real experience in politics (in spite of his friendship with Woodrow Wilson, of whom he wrote a book), and is very unassuming (which makes him an oddity in the ambassador society and among the Nazis, who are very extravagant). Martha initially falls in love with the burgeoning Nazi movement - she seems to romanticize the movement and sees it as a revolution. She is connected romantically, at various points, to the head of the Gestapo and, when she's not with him, a Soviet spy. She even meets Adolf Hitler at one point. We read not only of Martha's affairs but of Dodd's interactions with the Nazi leaders and the novel culminates with the Night of Long Knives.

This book took my breath away.  Absolutely astounded me.  From the get go, I was absorbed into the lives of William and Martha Dodd, their relationships, their trips, their parties and the people that they met.  I was also impressed by the depth of Larsen's research.  He used mostly primary sources - a lot of the stories and descriptions that he gave were taken from letters, diaries and other writings composed by the people that he was writing about.  The depth of his research and the material was also absolutely remarkable.

What perhaps most impressed me about this was how interesting and accessible Larsen made this topic. He took an extensive amount of information, compiled it and narrated this true story in a way that was interesting, educational and accessible.  He taught about a topic in a humble, everyday manner that would appeal to anyone, even if you don't like history.

Definitely read this one.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz

So I heard about this book on NPR and it sounded really interesting - it is described, accurately, as a biography of a book that changed the discourse in this country: The Feminine Mystique.  It was actually better than the book that it was about!

Coontz writes this book after having talked with the women that The Feminine Mystique impacted (and those who didn't) and looking at other primary sources: letters written to Ms. Friedan and by Ms. Friedan for instance.  It was a wonderful perspective really and raised not only the old, tired arguments about the work but continued to peel back the layers of the onion and pierce the veil so to speak.

What was also really interesting to me was the chapter in which Ms. Coontz talked about the current mystiques that prevail. I wished that there had been more discussion about the prevailing modern mystiques but I also realize that this could really be a complete book unto itself.

A really good, accessible read that provided really good analysis of an important work.  A must read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Muhammad by Deepak Chopra

I was browsing through the stacks at the library and saw this and was immediately intrigued. Deepak Chopra attempts to tell the life of the prophet of Islam through the eyes of the people that are often closest to him - his wife, his daughters, his followers.  And it was amazing, to say the least. I had never read anything by Deepak Chopra before, so I was a little nervous, but it was totally worth it.

This book is one of a trilogy of sorts - Chopra also wrote fictional accounts of Buddha's life and Jesus' life (aptly - Buddha and Jesus) and I intend to read at least the one on Jesus but will probably end up reading the one on Buddha as well.  This is a really well researched novel that discusses Muhammad's teachings and how they relate to Christainity and Judaism, both older religions relative to Islam. I was also really impressed by how Deepak Chopra chose to tell the tale - he told each part of the Prophet's life through the viewpoint of an important person in his family.  It included everyone from his nursemaid, to his wife and children, to a slave and even his worst enemy. It was a very effective way of conveying the Prophet's life and his belief system and i was absolutely enthralled.

This book was also really good because it provides a very simple explanation of the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. People that have read the Koran or have a much better education in the Muslim faith would probably not get a whole lot of out of this but for everyone else, it would be a pretty good introduction. It has inspired me to learn more about the Muslim faith!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

So, I read a review of this novel on the NY Times review blog/book review and thought that I would take a look at it. 

Bitter End is a "young adult" novel - I think mostly so because the protagonists are in high school. The main character is Alex, the middle of three girls whose mother died when Alex was young (but old enough to remember her at the same time). Alex's dad, also, unfortunately, checked out sometime before the events in this novel - he's emotionally unavailable and doesn't really pay attention to the girls, even though he generally provides the physical necessities to the girls. While she isn't close to her sisters, Alex is very close to her two best friends with whom she is planning a trip to Chicago. She eventually meets cole, the new guy in town, because she is his English tutor. They start dating and Alex is tremendously happy - cole seems to be the perfect guy. But things go downhill once Cole begins to get jealous and possesive.

Maybe it's because I see this sort of thing in my real life work. Or maybe it's because I studied domestic violence and the cycles of violence in law school. Regardless, I didn't like this book all that much - it wasn't very well written and I thought that it dealt too much in stereotypes.  It was too smarmy and too tidy. It was also way too predictable and the writing wasn't even that great - this book was too much like a Lfietime movie to really engross me or to make a point. 

Pass on this one.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

This Won't Hurt a Bit (and Other White Lies): My Education in Medicine by Michelle Au

I was really excited to hear that Michelle had a book coming out, particularly when I learned that it was a memoir about her time in medical school and how she balanced it with being a parent.  Michelle is the author of The Underwear Drawer, a popular blog that she updates pretty much everyday.  So I was super excited to see that she had a book coming out.

Michelle went to Columbia for law school and this memoir details her training in precise, exqusite detail that isn't too much to get into. She's also really funny. The book starts off, literally, with Michelle sticking her finger up a patient's butt in an attempt to get a stool sample.  It then proceeds to talk about her motivations in going to medical school, all the way through her medical training, intern years and residencies (including deciding to change residencies while pregnant and halfway through her previous residency). 

I loved Michelle's voice - she's down to earth, funny and honest.  She's brave too - she really puts herself out there in ways that not many people would have the confidence too because, of course, as with any parenting or professional decision, people are going to second guess every breath you take (or so it feels). I really, really liked this book generally and can't wait to see if she writes another one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Onward by Howard Schultz and Joanne Gordon

So, I spend time at Starbucks. Anyone who works with me or lives with me or knows me knows that.  So I was curious. I know about how Starbucks is supposed to be the evil coffee company that drives other, independent coffee houses out of business so i was curious to see how Howard Schultz, the current CEO, handled that. And he handled it poorly.

In 2000, Howard Schultz left the company to become chairman of the board; however in 2008, he returned to the position of CEO. The economy was tanking and so was Starbucks (which is no big surprise - I mean, people don't want to spend $2.00 for a cup of coffee when you can pay $1.00 for the same size coffee at the independent, fair trade, organic local coffee shop and the coffee is better!). This book is a business memoir, for lack of a better way of describing it and covers the period of time from 2007 to 2010. This is the period where Schultz retakes the helm as CEO and attempts to bring Starbucks through one of the worst recessions in recent memory.

What I disliked the most about this book was not the premise of it.  I really like transparency.  I like it when companies, no matter who they are, strive to make their decisions and the methodology by which they get to that decision public.  It gives me faith and makes me feel like I can give feedback about the process and the decision. However, that isn't what necessarily happened here. There were definitely times where Mr. Schultz attempted to be honest about the decisions he made and why. But I also feel like he was sugarcoating things and making Starbucks out to be this great, wonderful company when I'm not sure that it's all that different from any other big company - the bottom line. So i found that he came across as smarmy and slimey and trying to sell me on Starbucks, when really, it isn't all that great.  I felt like it was fake and it was forced. 

Sorry, you didn't sell me and, as The donald would say, you're fired.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...