Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debra Spar

Debra Spar was raised in the wake of the 60's, when the feminist movement was in full swing and never really considered herself a feminist or a beneficiary of the feminist movement.  Her life, though, demonstrates that it was - she is currently the President of Barnard College and was one of the few first female professors at Harvard Business School. Her argument is that in spite of women having made a number of different strides forward, they still can't have it all. Her book also serves as a call to all women to dispel and kill the myths that make them feel so woefully inadequate.

What I really liked about this book were the coherency of the arguments and the accessibility of source material - it was easily and fully annotated and easy to understand.  What I also really enjoyed was that it got me thinking about my own assumptions about why I did some of the things that I did and why I felt some of the things that I felt.

What I didn't like was that it seemed to repackage a tired, old argument that everyone knows about:  Women have struggled with the assumptions placed on them for decades (maybe even centuries).  It was repackaged to the well educated professional woman and excludes addressing issues of class, race and sexuality.  It doesn't address populations that work minimum wage jobs or who are lesbians, bisexual or transgendered.  It doesn't address women in the military.  The fact that it left out whole swathes of populations really was disappointing to me because this book could have done so much to forward the "why do I need to have it all?" sort of argument.

Generally an interesting read, but don't expect it to solve the world's problems.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

REVIEW: If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkoski

There's nothing that I like better than books written by fellow Poles and especially one that was begin as the result of a short non-fiction piece called "To Write Love on Her Arms" that was written by the author in 2006.  That story literally blossomed, seemingly overnight, into a non-profit organization that helps with depression and suicide. The passages are everything from notes and emails to prose and span the period in between 2006 and 2015. It felt at times, like I was reading someone's personal diary or journal - that's how personal the material was.

This book is a collection of Jaime's short stories and provides insight into both his own humanity and mind but also the minds and humanity of the people that he surrounds himself with. It's no surprise that it's insightful, particularly if you've read his material before or if you've had the pleasure of seeing him speak. It opens a dialogue up about topics that would otherwise be insurmountable. They aren't scripted and remind us that it's truly ok to not be ok.

What I really appreciated about this book is that Jamie didn't try to present as if he were wiser than anyone else or that he was actively trying to farm out his advice to other people, which would have been really easy to do under the circumstances. He was REAL - and presented his TRUE self to people. If he was saying he was struggling, he was struggling. You could take that to the bank. The diary style sometimes made it feel disjointed, but that didn't necessarily detract from what was going on in the stories.

This was a tremendously wonderful and inspiring book that you should all read. Follow this link to his website.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NG

For a debut novel, this was fantastic with a hook right from the start: a teenage girl is missing and her family doesn't know about it, there's a lake involved and a bad boy neighbor. And it's 1977, and the girl is biracial - her father is Japanese and her mother is white - which adds an element to the whole thing.

Lydia Lee is the missing girl and the middle child - what is unusual is that she's the favorite and a biracial Asian/white girl with Asian features and blue eyes. She seems so driven that she's the least likely of the three children in her family to go missing. The police are called and ask questions of Lydia's parents - how was she doing at school, who were her friends, was she depressed - and her parents find themselves unable to answer with any degree of certainty or honesty. The question in this novel is why are they unable to answer the questions.

Marilyn, Lydia's mother, has her own demons - she's estranged from her mother.  James, a Japanese man that became a citizen, hasn't ever felt that he has belonged anywhere. He was the only Asian student at a private boarding school and one of the first Asians to attend Harvard in the 1960's. He's grown up and is growing old with a sense of loneliness that can't be shaken. While Marilyn and James aren't cruel to their children, it is painfully obvious that they are living their dreams through their children and, by extension, putting a lot of pressure on their children to do what they always wanted to do.

While Ng did a masterful job in addressing the issues that arise with racial issues and family issues, she was less sure on police procedural issues. She could do to brush up on those. The scenes of mourning aren't the best either but hey, if these are the only complaints that I have about a first novel, then I'll take it.  Ng is a wonderful storyteller whose powerful message is conveyed in brilliantly simple text. Definitely a must read.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

I'm generally not a reader of celebrity memoirs.  I find that generally, celebrities don't write very well and don't necessarily have a voice that I want to hear, which is fine because their skill set may be elsewhere - acting, singing, whatever. But I heard positive things about this particular memoir so I picked it up.

For those of you that don't know, Carrie Brownstein was one of the founders of Sleater-Kinney, a Riot Grrl band in the early to mid nineties. That's not how I first became familiar with her - I became familiar with her through her absolutely brilliant and funny performances with Fred Armisen in Portlandia, on IFC. This book talks about Brownstein's life and her desire to be noticed and held in high esteem for her first love: music. She and her family lived in Redmond, WA and her proximity to Olympia and Seattle - the state's music centers - definitely had an impact on her. Music, after all, became her escape when her mother was hospitalized for struggles with anorexia and her father came out to her as homosexual.

The funnier, more endearing, and for me, more interesting moments, were at the beginning part of the book when I learned a lot about Brownstein's life growing up.  I live for and love those moments in books because I firmly believe that those moments give you insight into the type of person the narrator is NOW. One of my most favorite moments is when Carrie is doing a mock trial in school and she is assigned the role of the suspect's mother. Instead of sticking to script, Brownstein admits to being the killer in a moment of absolute drama that upsets both the teacher and the other players in the class, but which now gives me understanding as to how and why she's so wonderful in Portlandia.

I liked learning about the band but it wasn't the most interesting part of the book. It was interesting to learn how the band's main topic for their music was sexism - raising awareness of it and fighting it. She, for example, talked a lot about the double standards that existed in being covered by reporters - how they consistently asked about what it was like to be a female rock star band or what they were wearing on stage at a concert as opposed to the content of their music.  I respect that because those are still conversations that exist today - people talk more about Hilary's pantsuits then they do about Donald's suits (even though his suits are more of a political topic, considering that they were made overseas by people in jobs that were sent overseas by Mr. Trump himself).

Generally, a decent read especially if you are interested in the Riot Grrl movement.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

I was hesitant to pick up Justin Cronin's trilogy, which began with The Passage, because I was vampired out.  But it's different. It combines science fiction and westerns and spans about 1500 pages and 1000 years and generations, upon generations of people.  It's dystopian and hopeful all at the same time! The vampires don't sparkle, thankfully, and the story isn't just told in prose - it's told via letters, journals, scientific journals, flashback, the whole nine yards.
As the book opens, we find our beloved characters in a time of peace and relative prosperity.  There have been no viral attacks for twenty years. The main characters are all struggling with something that has broken them and they each struggle. And there was also Zero, the ultimate bad guy, that wants his say and his ultimate revenge. This book is wonderful in the sense that it is Cronin at his absolute best - he is a storyteller on par with perhaps the best of the fantasy writers - of any writer actually.  The books are detailed and thoughtful and speak to the souls of people.  What is also wonderful is that this book can be treated as both a standalone novel or as the last book in the trilogy. While it would be nice to have read the previous two books - I found that the previous two books gave me emotional connections to the characters that I might not have had otherwise - this book does not require it in the way that, say the Outlander books or the Fire and Ice books do.  A reader can come to this book totally cold and can enjoy it.  At the same time, the reader of the trilogy will not be let down by what Cronin accomplishes in the end with this book-  believe me, it's everything that you will hope it will be. Definitely worth it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

In Memoriam

One of my most favorite bookish podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, has ended its tremendously successful run.  It has been around seemingly forever and was one of my staples in book recommendations. It will be sorely missed and leaves a space in my podcast listening zone that I'm striving to fill.  While I understand that the podcast em-cees, Michael and Anne, have their own lives that they probably want to continue with (and podcasting takes a lot of time, particularly when you're as popular as they are and, for example, as popular as the Manic Mommies are/were), they will be sorely missed.  However you can find them on both Goodreads and on Twitter.

In anticipation of their ultimate decision to end the podcast, I found a number of other really awesome podcasts to fill the void, some of which are bookish and some of which aren't.  For your listening pleasure:

  • BookRiot - more of a news in the publishing industry podcast but still pretty awesome;
  • All the Books - a weekly podcast about new book releases
  • Boy Vs. Girl - a short weekly podcast that looks at gendered things. Love this one!
  • This American Life
  • Dear Sugar - a weekly advice podcast hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond
  • Book Lust by Nancy Pearl
Please feel free to leave your recs here as well!!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Importance of Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel passed away over the weekend - the Independence Day holiday weekend here in the States - and in some ways that was a fitting time for a man such as he to pass from the world that he tried so hard to make a better place.  In the picture to the right, Mr. Wiesel is on the second bunk. There is a man with a white cap on and another man, leaning up on his elbow and you can then see Mr. Wiesel peeking around the edge of that man.

Mr. Wiesel will be mourned and missed by all. In 1960, his memoir, Night, about his time in a concentration camp at the age of 15 was published, rocketing him to fame.  He continued, throughout the course of his life, to write about religion and humanity as a result of his experiences in that Concentration Camp during World War 2. In his writings and his life, he fought against atrocities perpetuated against  people and never let people forget what had happened to him at the ages of 15 and 16 while he was imprisoned. He touched the lives of thousands if not millions of people and will continue to do so even after his death.

Thank you Mr. Wiesel. May you rest in peace. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker

This book came highly recommended to me by a number of co workers and other people that have since assumed a very special place in my life. I read during a period in my life that was particularly trying and it really, really hit home, additionally helping me overcome the stressful thing in my life. This book is a primer on violence written by someone who has a tremendous amount of personal and professional experience in dealing with violence. This book singularly changed MY life as far as my personal and intimate relationships go and I am forever indebted to the book and its author for the role it played in changing the course of MY life.

In short, this book is a brilliantly written discourse and analysis of various, common forms of violence. The reader is given many different perspectives during the course of the analysis - from the victim's perspective, the investigator's perspective and other outsider's perspective - in order to demonstrate to the reader that patterns exist that can lead us to predict violence or, at the very least, to trust our basic, gut level instincts. This book was thought provoking and well thought out. DeBecker uses case studies effectively in attempting to convince the reader of the truth and accuracy of his arguments. It was very, very well thought out.

In my life, shortly after reading this book, I had contact with an old friend relatively shortly after reading this book.  At the time, I had just come out of a difficult personal relationship and wasn't looking for anything. In talking to him, my instinct was to just ask this person out and see where it went.  I'm very, very glad that I did because I'm the happiest that I've been for a while and all because I trusted what my instinct was telling me.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This book is off putting when you initially see it - once because of the sheer size of it.  It is close to 750 pages in the hardback  (720 to be exact) and the cover is of a young man with an expression that is seemingly a combination of pleasure and pain. This is a book about friendship but not amongst women - it seems that everyone writes a book about friendship between the female gender doesn't it? - but about the friendship between a group of four friends that meet in college and whose relationships span the period of about 30 years in the novel. There's the actor Willem, the artist JB, the architect Malcolm and the attorney, Jude (who we learn is addicted to cutting himself). The center of the story is Jude. The pages that follow shows how each of these men rise and fall and lose their centers and bearings, sometimes painfully.

TRIGGER WARNINGS are a must for this book. Jude's story, which is the center of this novel, is so painful and contains so many triggers that the Civil War looks like child's play. The fact that Yanagihara named this character after the patron saint of lost causes is some poetic justice. She handles it masterfully and yet, the scars that Jude has as an adult - which range from self hatred to the yearning for love and yet the abject mistrust of anyone and everyone. He struggles and struggles and struggles to try to recover. I liked how she really tried to force me to try to enter into the world of someone whose mind was not like my own. And yet, I love also how she is able to capture the warmth and acceptance of true friendship and the different forms of love that exist. I lived this book while reading it and dreamt of it when I wasn't. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Missoula by Jon Krakauer

You may recognize the author's name - Krakauer is perhaps most famous for the book Into the Wild about a young man that goes to Alaska (and which was made into a movie).  I enjoyed that book and when I heard on a podcast that I listen to that Krakuer had written a new book, I decided to get it and read it.  In this book, which is non fiction - he focuses on the University of Montana, the local police department and at the local prosecutor's office and analyzes their job performances through the eyes of five young women who were sexually assaulted. During this same period, the Department of Justice investigated how those same parties handled 80 rape cases and that investigation yielded dismaying results. In one instance, a detective re assured a male suspect during an interrogation that she didn't believe he committed a rape (despite evidence to the contrary) because they got a lot of false accusations. Similarly, the Chief of Police (!!!) sent an article to a victim citing two studies that say that the majority of rape allegations made against acquaintances, boyfriends, friends are found to be false. Krakauer also looks at how the University itself dealt with sexual assault, particularly when it seemed that the prized football players were alleged to be the perpetrators.

I thought that this book had a lot of potential, but it was potential that it didn't quite live up to. Part of it was do to my expectations going in: I expected the book to be more of a neutral, investigative report about what was happening in a small, college town dealing with one of the toughest types of criminal cases: sexual assault between people who know each other.  However, it was completely one sided.  Krakauer didn't appear to have talked to the investigating police officers (that could have provided a ton of information quite frankly) , nor does he appear to have talked to the alleged victim and perpetrator in the case that forms the crux of the book (the QB was accused of raping a friend, and it tore apart the college and local community and went to trial!). The book relies heavily on transcripts of court proceedings and police interviews and news coverage.  It doesn't appear that Krakauer actually went to the University of Montana and immersed himself in, or tried to learn about, the student culture at that particular college. Even some of the victims were one dimensional, as if their assault defined them (which I would hope wasn't the message Krakauer wanted to send - these women are MUCH more than that). I wanted to learn about them as people - where they came from, what they were doing, what they were interested in.

Campus rape and acquaintance rape are very complex issues and I didn't feel that Krakauer did that complexity justice.  He didn't even delve deeply into the relationship of alcohol and these sorts of scenarios.  I just was very disappointed.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Passage by Justin Cronin

OK, I know that everyone is like "PUH-lease, more vampires? Are you serious? Totally overhyped." I swear this isn't vampires that were spawned from 50 Shades of Gray Fanfic and aren't sparkly in the sun.  Or are 500 year old stalker pedophile types. This novel is the first in a trilogy written by a literature professor at Rice University and I swear I couldn't sleep at night because of it. This is a dystopian, science fiction thriller at heart and is set a few years in the near future. The war on terror is mounting and is on American territory, with attacks at shopping malls and schools in addition to the typical military targets. As a result, a secret government project is spawned (no pun intended) in which 12 death row inmates are infected with a virus that was procured from Bolivian bats in the hopes of creating a new super-soldier. It isn't a far cry to realizing that things start to go wrong and then a virus, Walking Dead style, has spread throughout the North American continent and there are vampires all over the place. The book also fast forwards approximately 100 years after the Vampire Apocalypse and then focuses on a small community of 60 people that have somehow managed to survive uninfected.

Cronin is a talented and creative author that somehow manages to immerse us into the daily lives not only of the people that are involved in the creation of the vampires but in the lives of the survivors 100 years later. He creates a vibrant world with realistic and reasonably interesting characters that I, at least, connected with on an emotional level - I definitely had one or two characters that I have become tremendously attached to. He also has a sense of humor - Jenna Bush is passingly mentioned as the governor of Texas and soldiers watch Bela Luogisi's Dracula for fun. There are some minor flaws - cliffhangers strategically placed and cliches that are used - but they are minor in comparison to the WONDERFUL plot development, character development and joy that was the creation and reading of this novel.  I am eagerly reading the second book in the trilogy now and am looking forward to the release of the final installment this month. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

BellZhar by Meg Wolizter

Meg Wolitzer is known for her adult novels - many of which I've read and enjoyed - so I wanted to try this novel, a Young Adult novel. It also is a play on words and references The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I LOVED reading and is one of the books that I often read over and over and over again. The majority of this novel takes place at a boarding school in Vermont where emotionally fragile and highly intelligent teens go. The narrator, Jam Gallahue, is a student that "was sent [there] because of a boy" - it's a boy named Reeve that we see throughout the novel, often with Jam. One of the classes that Jam is registered for is a highly selective English class called "Special Topics in English" (there are only 6 students total in the class). Each student receives a beautiful, old, red leather journal that they are told they must write in as part of the class. While writing in the journals, the students start having extraordinary experiences.  The novel follows the students through these experiences and along their journey in becoming their new "normal."

Even though this book isn't like Wolitzer's adult novels, I still enjoyed it. It was a very quick read and only took me a day or two. I admit that I stayed up past my bedtime to read the book - which should tell you how engaging it and the characters are. I did like the characters too - they were relatable and all of them had triggering events that were not beyond the realm of possibility in the real world. Don't be tricked by the title though - if you're looking for a ton of Sylvia Plath or to get any insight into HER short life, you're looking in the wrong place. The class studies Plath but that is the extent of her appearances really - there is also some brief discussion of a small portion of her work. This is a novel about friendship, hope, struggle and eventually, recovery.  Wolitzer seems to be very strong in this sort of theme. There is profound self discovery and the journals are the source of that self discovery.  I highly encourage buying/reading this book!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell

Wow. Just wow.  The novel begins in 2019 at the Arecibo Observatory when the program there picks up a transmittal of music from Alpha Centaury.  The Jesuits are the ones that sponsor a mission to the system and send a team to the planet, Rakhat, to explore. It is clear from the beginning that only one of the team - a priest by the name of Emilio Sandoz - survives the mission and the story is therefore told in flashback, alternating between what happened on the mission and his relating the story in the contemporary time. Sandoz has returned to great controversy because the Jesuits sent the mission without UN oversight and because it ended terribly. Sandoz returns as a shell of the man that he was and we are left to sort out why.
This book was simply amazing.  Doria deals with many heavy subjects in such a terrific way: the benefits and risks in absolute faith in a benevolent God, the role of God in the lives of people who believe and people who don't, and how that would effect interactions with aliens or other sentient human beings. Science fiction is simply the vehicle through which she elected to explore these themes. Very little is spent on how they figure out how to travel through time and space. The struggles of the characters aren't necessarily with the technology but with their own thoughts, beliefs, misconceptions, actions, follies and relationships.  I loved that this was an exploration of what happens when a person tries to do things for the right reasons and yet, things go wrong. GO BUY IT NOW!!!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Simple Happiness by Jim Ryan

I received this from the publisher to review, as an up front, so I was unsure as to what to expect. But when I started to read it, it was like a breath of fresh air and couldn't have come at a more opportune time - a time when I'm trying to take control of my life and change it in ways that are more positive, starting with the power of positive thought. Jim Ryan is a motivational speaker and he brings that power to his writing and this book in a really wonderful, refreshing way.

The Chapters are very short and can be read one day at a time, almost like you're doing daily meditations. What I would have liked to do and will do going forward is read one a day in the morning and then journal on it that night to see how well the lesson went for that day.  52 could also be a magical number - one devotional per week (for one year of devotionals/meditations). Each chapter has a simple message that may be obvious to some or all of us, but which you (I know that I don't always) listen to or follow enough that it's automatic. This book teaches us to rewire our thoughts in a practical and straightforward manner and Mr. Ryan's writing style was approachable and well suited to this purpose. I didn't feel that he was talking down to me at all. In fact, quite the opposite - I felt that he was talking WITH me and we could exchange ideas on how to make our lives that much more happy. He's definitely not self righteous! All in all, this is a book that I highly recommend as adding to your collection and which I, personally, will be revisiting often in the hopes of learning about myself and how to make myself more positive.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me - by Jennifer Teege

I have always had a morbid curiosity with the Holocaust.  OK, not just THE Holocaust, but any sort of situation where people can do horrendous things to each other. I make no excuses: I am looking for answers. I want to know WHY people the things that they do.  It helps me to process things that are very difficult and emotional for me. So when I saw this book, I was excited. I was hoping it would give me answers and it provided a woman's account of her struggle to come to terms with who her family members were/are.
Teege discovered, at the age of 38, that her maternal grandfather is Amon Goeth (the Commandant of Plazow and who was made famous by Schindler's List). As a result of her discovery, Teege decides to research her family by traveling to Poland and Israel and attempting to reconnect with her mother Monika (Amon's daughter). Teege writes the book with historian Nikola Sellmar.  Teege documents the personal memoir part of her journey while Sellmar provides us with the historical context in which Teege is courageously struggling. Teege is the daughter of Monika Goeth and a Nigerian student that was living with Monika at the time.  Teege was given up for adoption shortly after her birth. Interestingly, Teege had regular contact with Monika and Monika's mother Ruth but no one ever spoke of the family's history and there is no doubt that Jennifer was loved by her biological mother, biological grandmother and adopted family very much. Obviously, Jennifer never knew Amon, who was executed in the 40's after his trial.

I LOVED how honest and direct this book was. It's hard enough to tell a story like this but to do it as they did was absolutely a wondrous thing to behold. The story starts with Teege's discovery and quickly moves past that salaciousness. She grapples not with how she characterizes her grandfather - she has a really easy time categorizing him as pure evil - but she really struggles with how to characterize her mother and grandmother, and her feelings towards them. They love each other - that much is obvious - but Teege has a difficult time reconciling that love with the seeming apathy both her mother and grandmother had towards the terrible things that her grandfather did.  At times they seem to make excuses for him at best and don't do ANYTHING to stop him at their worst. She struggles with her alienation from her adoptive family and then about how she will be able to face her Israeli friends, who had family members that died in the Holocaust. Were they going to cut her out completely when they realized who her grandfather was and the awful things that he did? What I loved about this book isn't necessarily the answers or lack of answers that it gave.  The beauty was in the journey and it can be a tremendous teaching tool or comfort for anyone that is struggling with the issues that Teege seems to still struggle with.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The first novel I read by this author was Americanah and I enjoyed it so I've been looking for another by this author for quite some time.  This is also a novel about Nigeria - specifically, it is about the Nigerian Civil War, which occurred between 1967 and 1970 - and is told from three different perspectives - Ugwu (a servant in a wealthy Nigerian family), Olanna (a wealthy, black Nigerian) and Richard ( a white Englishman). The book jumps about dramatically - and alternates between the period before the war and the period during/just after the war has ended.

Adichie focussed on the war from a purely civilian standpoint - the military and its characters are ancillary at best - and the main characters go from relative wealth to squalor. There are stories of raids, mass murders, genocide and abduction, some of which are experienced by the main characters. I enjoyed that the perspective was that of a civilian one. However, the choppiness of the period changes made it sometimes difficult to follow what was going on and when, so perhaps some of the significance of the story was lost. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spinster by Kate Bolick

The premise of this book is fascinating and, perhaps, long overdue. In this book, Kate Bolick poses the theory that being single and alone, particularly as a woman, is preferable to being married. This book is, in part, a memoir in which Bolick explores her journey to feel comfortable as a single woman of a certain age while at the same time providing small histories of the women that have impacted her life: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Maeve Brennan among them.

I would classify this book as being more closely related to Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, in which Bolick attempts to decide HOW she wants to live and seems to defend her singledom. I did enjoy learning about Ms. Bolick's "awakeners" - the women that she says influenced her the most.  However, the parts of the book that I found more and most fascinating were the parts that were memoir based where Bolick was describing her life and memory and her own personal struggles.  Her voice is unique and grabs you.  Ms. Bolick was also really good at describing the seeming double life of young people - the life that we seem to live in public, going out and working, talking or falling in love and the private one - making plans and to do lists and dreaming. What doesn't seem to hold up is that the women that Bolick said motivated her weren't true spinsters in the traditional meaning of the word - at some point in their lives they WERE married. SOme of them were happily married. I think that the message that Bolick was trying to convey was that these women lived lives on their own terms regardless of the social rules that were placed upon them and that was why they were so influential upon her.

My other critiques are more grand and general. Bolick obviously knows that women at some point, if they are authors, are almost required to write about their dating life.  WHy do WOMEN have to do this and the same pressure does not exist for MEN?  Knowing this, why did she give in to the social stricture that was placed on HER? She spends a TON of time talking about the appearances of the women that were influential even though all of them were REALLY educated and successful in their own rights. How is their appearance important?  Are we REALLY still putting more emphasis on looks than on accomplishment when it comes to women?  This book held lots of promise and I generally liked reading the history of the amazing women that influenced her - there aren't enough of those - and Bolick shows promise as far as her voice. But this book didn't go as far as I wanted it to. I think that the next one that Bolick writes will hopefully hit the nail on the head.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz


David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist, could easily have waited until the original Millenium Trilogy achieved classic status (which I'm nearly sure it will) before continuing the series.  But he elected to continue it right away. The success of these novels is and continues to be the two main characters: Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander and their unique relationship. I was so happy to hear that the series was continuing because Lisbeth has to be one of the BEST heroines that has ever been created.  If there's one character that I would want to be in my corner, it's her.  She's tough as nails, smart as hell, fearless, loyal and has a heart bigger than her body.

Which leads me to my major concern about this novel. While I was VERY excited about more Lisbeth Salandar, would a new author completely and utterly much it up? Lisbeth is VERY unique and so, would only Stieg Larsson be able to give us her as she must be and should be? So I admit that I opened the novel with a very critical eye towards the characters and the plot.  The novel starts in Maryland at the NSA where their most private of servers has been hacked. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel, where the technology itself almost seems to be a character in and of itself. Oh and there is also a mute, autistic eight year old boy, who is a savant that needs to be protected in order to solve a crime and there's code breaking and REALLY bad, sadistic enemies. THe plot itself was just fine and moved quickly after the first 20 or so pages. In fact it only took me about three days to finish the novel because it moved so quickly.
But what about Lisbeth right?  Lisbeth is mentioned in the prologue but is given to us slowly, in bits and pieces. A tease. It's not until page 216, halfway through the book, that she actually talks to her co-star: Blomkvist and even then, the rest of the book isn't nearly as edgy as Larsson's books.  Everything we hear and see of her is told to us third hand by witnesses to her acts, not really as she's experiencing. I wanted more of her as the edgy Lisbeth. Don't get me wrong, the book IS entertaining but maybe my problem was that I expected my old Lisbeth to return.  Definitely a good distracting read for vacations, just set your expectations accordingly. This isn't Larsson's Lisbeth.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

This book has been all over everyone's radar lately, from the folks at NPR to the folks at BookRiot to Ann and Michael at Books on the Nightstand. Since the three major sources of my reading material were all super positive, I borrowed it from my local library. Essentially, it seems, this book was born of the pain of others and the premise that experiencing the pain of others requires imagination and a leap of faith. It's all kinds of pain - physical, emotional, economic, mental, you name it. This book is a collection of essays that the author has penned over the last few years about pain and how people other than her experience it. She has lots of questions too: what do all these sorts of pain mean? What do we do about it?

Her focus seems to be the space between the person suffering the pain and the person who is observing the sufferer and how to bridge that gap. Her stories fill both categories: in two of them, she is the one that is suffering and needs empathy (in one because she's getting an abortion and in the other, heart surgery). In the others, she visits a conference for people that suffer from Morgellons and also, an ultramarathon (though not the same group of people!). In every case, she seemingly carefully notes the empathetic responses or lack thereof and the mechanisms. And she does a magnificent job - her imagery and metaphors are second to none.

Definitely worth the purchase

Godspeed Ms. Lee

Dear Harper:

You died on February 16, 2016 so I must make my apologies for no writing you sooner and memorializing you in my own way. It is completely inhuman of me and disrespectful, giving the esteem with which I hold you and how you have influenced my life in a positive way.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in ninth grade at Memorial High School. At that time, I found it fascinating that a group comprised of two children, their single father and their Black cook could so easily form a unit.  I was more fascinated by the adventures that the children had and what happened to Scout at the end of the book, with Atticus just being a character that flitted around the edges, no more important than Calpurnia or Boo. As a 13 year old or 14 year old, I think that I had related more to Scout than anyone else in the book and in some ways I probably still do (since she is loosely based upon you and we probably had more in common than not).  This is, however, one of those few books that you can read at various parts of your life and upon each reading, you can read many times at different parts of your life and still take away many, many lessons. It was so with me and this book.  I found the racial relationships described in teh book fascinating - how did Calpurnia feel about her position? What did her family and friends think?  What did the black and white communities think of her role and what those communities in real life?

And then there was Atticus.  Oh, Atticus!  How you created a character that people grew to adore, love even, respect and emulate. He was the person that you wanted to model your behavior after, particularly when it came to how to treat people and wisdom. Those were two things that made him one of the most admirable people in literature but perhaps, most importantly, he is why I and countless others went to law school.  He stood up for the underdog and the person that culture silenced, even though it came at much personal emotional, financial and physical risk. He showed his belief that everyone deserved the best representation possible regardless of who they were and he did his best.  Whenever I feel that I'm losing my vision of what I am doing in my own job and life as a lawyer/trainer/educator, I read the book again and it re focuses me and puts me on the right path again.  I remember why I'm doing what I'm doing and why it's important. It continues to drive me forward.

Thank you. Thank you, Thank you. When you wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, I often wonder if you anticipated how far reaching and how much of an impact your novel would h ave.  I'm not sure it would have been looked at twice if you had released Go Set A Watchman first, but that's not what happened so I won't speculate.  The point is, your work has had an impact not on just my own, small, life but on a much bigger level.  May you rest in peace Harper and thank you!

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

I picked up this book because, in part, I have this morbid curiosity about what drives people to do some of the most horrendous things ever: bombings, the Holocaust, whatever.  I'm also a transplant in the Boston area - I went to college on mile 13.1 of the Boston Marathon (go Wellesley), so Marathon Monday always will and always had a special place in my heart.  So when the bombings at the finish line happened on April 15, 2013 it was almost a personal violation. 

This book isn't about intricate relationships between Jahar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev or about family even.  I found that it was more about disconnection and sociopathy and what led to the disaffection that could lead two people to cause such pain and tragedy in the city that had seemingly welcomed them. It describes the events leading up to the bombings and the events in its immediate aftermath and offers a theory that the FBI doesn't really get terrorism. The book was most interesting and effective in conveying the Tsarnaev's social history. The story begins in Soviet-era Russia where we meet the parents of the marathon bombers as young adults.

Zubeidat, the boys' mother, is an ethnic Avar from Makhachkala, Dagestan, who met Anzor Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen from Kyrgyzstan, on the street in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in the spring of 1985. Their marriage was considered to be somewhat outside the norm since they were from different ethnic groups but that didn't stop them. During the early part of their marriage, Stalin was in power and was actively going after Chechans. When Krushchev came to power, those restrictions were being rolled back. In 1992 therefore, they moved back to Chechnya, two years ahead of the Russians bombing the area. They left for America when the going got bad, exchanging one brand of chaos for another. Not only were they on the margins but they still harbored much mistrust for the government and authorities, which further served to marginalize them. They often skirted the rules.  The boys tried to fit in as much as possible - interestingly, Jahar, the youngest, was sent to America alone way in advance of his family in his early teens (something I never knew), so he was more Americanized than his family members.

I really thoroughly enjoyed getting the familial background because it gave me the context that I had so craved. The cultural confusion that the family felt was palpable and the author did a masterful job getting the family and its friends to talk about their experiences. It was also a very interesting story. However, I left unsatisfied at the same time. I still have no answers as to WHY the brothers did such a heinous thing. The end of the book seemed just a collection of conspiracy theories, so if you're looking for an answer to WHY then this book probably isn't for you. It IS a masterful history of the most recent generation of the Tsarnaev family. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sofie's Choice by William Styron

This is a book steeped in contradictions.  The main character, Sophie, is the epitome of this. She is very tragic and yet beautiful, a liar that is honest in her lies, she is utterly depressed and then manically happy, she is a survivor but also a victim.  I read the book before I saw the movie so I already had a notion of what Sophie looked like before she was there on the screen. 

The narrator in this movie is William Styron's alter ego - based loosely on himself - a Southerner from tidewater Virginia - that I now affectionately remember by his nickname - Stingo.  After quitting his job at a publishing house, Stingo, an aspiring writer, rents a room in Brooklyn which he refers to as the Pink Palace and meets Nathan Landau. Nathan is a compelling but very deeply disturbed Jewish intellectual who works at Pfizer and who has singlehandedly nursed a Polish WWII victim, Sophie Zawistowska, back to health. At the time that Stingo meets them, the pair have become lovers. Stingo is drawn to his new friends but, the longer that he spends with them, the longer he realizes that there is a very, very dense fog surrounding them - he witnesses physical violence and emotional abuse in their relationship. As the novel progresses, Sophie describes her life before and during WWII to Stingo. Sophie was a Polish Catholic, married with two children and yet she was seemingly persecuted by the Nazis with the same vitriol as the Jews that the Nazis strove to exterminate. Somehow, Sophie survived being sent to Auschwitz, in the sense that she didn't die, but she was forced to make a terrible, unimaginable choice.

The book started off slowly, I won't lie. But once Stingo met Sophie and Nathan, I was absolutely hooked. What was fascinating to me was that Styron took on a number of intense themes that are still relevant today: domestic violence, the extermination of one group of people by another, mental health and its treatment (or lack of it), and oppression in America. He even attempts to draw a parallel between the oppression of African Americans in the South with those of the oppressed groups during World War II.  And yet, even with these intense themes, Styron did not sacrifice the story or plot. It is a story that draws you and keeps you interested through the entire 515 pages.  I simply could not look away from the words on the page, even though I had some idea of what was going to happen.  Styron's characters were also three dimensional. I found myself able to sympathize with Sophie as well as put myself in her shoes, even at the worst of times.  

William Styron did a wonderful job in telling a horrendously hideous story in a sensitive and bearable way. He layered the story - it didn't go in chronological order - which was a masterful way of building the tension until the ultimate moment of choice. I found myself able to digest and really think about her story and the tragedy that she experienced in a way that I perhaps couldn't if it had been done chronologically. Definitely a must read.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hiatus is broken, a cool website and some great book podcasts

I so want this coffee mug because I feel like it totally defines my relationship with books. Give me a good one and we can't be separated.  Anyways, I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately because I've just been so busy that I haven't gotten much done in the way of reading - between starting a new job, taking care of my home and children, the holidays and coaching soccer, i have very little time. But I'm back now and am reading two books currently:

  • Sophie's Choice by William Styron. This novel is approximately 500 pages long (and I love every word of it so far!) and won the National Book Award in 1980 - it was published in 1979.  I think everyone is familiar with the premise of this story - it's become an American pop culture reference for having to make a choice between two unfathomable, terrible options.  I've always had a morbid fascination with the Holocaust in the sense that I simply can't understand what would drive anyone to commit mass murder actively or passively participate by not doing anything to work against it, making this novel right up my alley. I've read Anne Frank's Diary, The Boy with the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief, Schindler's List, The Reader and Hitler's Willing Executioners. I also have  Night on my Nightstand, to be read. If anyone has any other good books about this topic, please post in the comments. :)
  • Drums Of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. This is the fourth book in the Outlander series. I love this series of books.  I even have a facebook group page dedicated to it (go to it and ask to join - it's a closed group but I'm happy to talk to you about joining and admit you to the inner sanctum!). I even went to see her at this showing!
I have found a number of really good reading/book podcasts that get me through the seeming drought of reading.  I faithfully listen to all of them and urge you to give them a try!

There are some really nifty book websites out there that you should check out!
  • Goodreads - I use it to organize what I'm reading and what I've read. There are also discussion groups that are a wealth of knowledge. My profile is here.
  • Serial box - online serialized novels. Pretty cool.

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...