March 8, 2014
The Children's Book -
As I was reading this book, I couldn't help thinking how interesting it would be to compare and contrast it (i.e. this book) with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. There were so many similarities, yet in other ways the two books had a very different feel.
They are both about children, and cover the lives of children from the time that they're born through to when they are adults. Byatt's book has many children as the main subject matter, whereas Rushdie's book has one major character and lots of minor ones.
Both are very much about their author's native countires, and both books have side discussions of the ongoing history of their respective countries as a backdrop to the storyline. Byatt's book is about England; Rushdie's is about India.
I found both authors to be exceptionally imaginative. There would be bits of desciption or storyline that would take off on interesting tangents - like a fun little excursion - and both authors made this seem effortless. This effortless imagination is something I don't find in books often, and it's one of my favorite things about both these authors - that they have so many imaginative bits in their books, but can do this concurrently with a very well structured storyline.
Both The Children's Book and Midnight's Children are nice fat books that take some time to read.
February 24, 2014
Every Day -
A teen book that hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Sweet and tidily plotted with characters about whom I cared.
Far From the Tree -
As opposed to close to the tree, where the majority of apples seem to fall.
"I started this book to forgive my parents and ended it by becoming a parent. Understanding backward liberated me to live forward. I wanted to find out why I had experienced so much pain in my childhood, to understand what was my doing, what was my parents', and what was the world's. I felt I owed it to both my parents and myself to prove that we had been less than half the problem. In retrospoect, it seems obvious that my research about parenting was also a means to subdue my anxieties about becoming a parent. But the mind works in mysterious ways, and if this was my secret purpose, it revealed itself only gradually."
And that's about it. If, by chance, you grew up in a house where you did not seem to fit in; if you have children that really don't make sense to you, this book should help you put much into perspective. Sometimes the apples fall far from the tree. For everyone else, this is still a fascinating discussion on parenting. Solomon examines the specific issues around dwarves, the deaf, geniuses, those with Down's Syndrome, transgender, criminals, the autistic, the schizophrenic and those conceived via rape, and as is stated in the preceding paragraph, it all ends up becoming a discussion about being parented and parenting.
Midnight's Children -
Salman Rushdie has this ability to sort of seemingly effortlessly come up with beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence. The sentences are light and swirly - they sort of make my mind travel somewhere else in this uplifting, gentle way that makes me smile.
I very much enjoyed this book.
I didn't enjoy The Satanic Verses as much as I liked Midnight's Children, and I think it's because The Satanic Verses felt entirely cerebral, perhaps a bit flighty a times. Conversely, Midnight's Children is a journey of the mind that remains gently, perfectly, grounded. It all just flowswonderfully to the end:
"Yes, they will trample me underfoot.....reducing me to specks of voiceless dust....until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihalating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace".
I think I'm going to read this one again one day.
I'm Your Man - The Life of Leonard Cohen -
A biography - about a singer/ songwriter whose work I enjoy very much. I saw the book in Costco and thought it might be an interesting change from fiction.
Mostly, I very much liked it. It did get a bit 'and then he had a new girlfriend and then he made another record and then he went on tour' sometimes. I liked when the parts when there was more story about Cohen's life. I think, basically, it's pretty difficult to talk about albums and songs without the perspective of hte albums and songs. Sometimes I'd go and find the music, but sometimes I didn't. I went to find some of the poetry online once, but didn't have much luck with that. So mostly I just enjoyed reading about what Cohen did with his life - he's very interesting.
I have ordered a copy of Cohen's Book of Longing and bought myself a few more Cohen songs on iTunes.
The Virgin Suicides -
Jeffrey Eugenides strikes me as a bit of a creep. This is the third book I've read by him (so - yes - he's a creep who writes well) and with each one, I can't help but wonder about his personality. I mean - really - a big thick (Pulitzer Prize winning) book on the coming of age of a hermaphrodite (complete with intricate details (I suppose someone had to write about this..... or did they? )), the 'let's try and write the Big American Novel' that was The Marriage Proposal that was heavily interlaced with some sort of revenge fantasy, and now (chronologically, it came earlier than the other two but it's the last one I read) we have The Virgin Suicides: five virginal sisters, all definite misfits, who end up committing suicide. It's written from the viewpoint of the male teenager observer. (Creepy guy fantasy or what?)
Very nicely done. I liked the writing; worthwhile reading.
The Rosie Project -
This was sweet. A bit 'rose-coloured glasses' (true love causes awkward Asperger's dude to be a little less Asperger-ish and 'emerge (mostly emerge) - WHY do so any fiction books persist in this wishful thinking stuff? Don't authors (who, to write books, must be somewhat intelligent) know that there are people who will believe this kind of stuff, but because it is just that - wishful thinking - damage can be done due to false expectations? Anyways....) Yeah yeah yeah. Everyone wants a happy ending. That's why it's done. Sometimes, in real life, there are happy endings, and sometimes, there aren't, and sometimes, wishful thinking is highly counterproductive.
But still, it was sweet and nicely executed.
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia -
It made me cry. Not just tear up, but flowing tears and a sob.
So that's the important part - I found it so moving that I cried. I can try to explain what was in the book that touched me so, but I won't be able to. Mohsin Hamid is the amazing writer, not me.
I picked this up becuase I read an interview with Mr. Hamid in the New York Times Book Review, and I liked what he said.
From the book:
"We are all refugees from our childhood. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create."
"As you create this story and I create this story, I would like to ask you how things were. I would like to ask you about the person who held your hand when dust entered your eye or ran with you from the rain. I would like to tarry here awhile with you, or if tarrying is impossible to transcend my here, with your permission, in your creation, so tantalizing to me, and so unknown. That I can't do this doesn't stop me from imagining it. And how strange that when I imagine, I feel. The capacity for empathy is a funny thing."
(That wasn't the part that made me cry. I just stopped and read it a few times because it was so beautiful).
Some Remarks - Neal Stephenson
And the Neal Stephenson fascination continues..... when there's a hardcover of a Neal Stephenson book at the local bookstore for 7.99, how can I resist?
What I liked about this in particular is that it contains articles written by Stephenson when he worked as a contributor for WIRED. There's something about magazine writing that differs from novel writing, as though by having cheques from each story contributing to living expenses - (or is it that magazines have a different audience from novels?) - anyways - it quietly affects the writer's style.
Lots of fun: musings on geeks, science fiction, laying telecommunication wires across continents, David Foster Wallace, and 18th century mathematical geniuses. Neal Stephenson has this curious, intricate mind and it's so much fun to go wandering 'round with him as a guide.
The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton
It's a book by a young-ish (late 20's) woman about a bunch of men (and a couple of women) lving in New Zealand during the late 19th Century gold rush.
Look, I know, I'm supposed to consider the book independently of what I know about the author. But - i couldn't get past it.
The two (yes, only two) women in the book were such male cliches - a prostiture who is delicately beautiful, a lovely flower, corrupted by - of course - the older woman - and then she (the prostitute) ends up changing her ways when she encounters true love (oh yeah - the Pretty Woman cliched as anything fantasy gets played out yet again). And the other women is the cliched middle-aged vixen/ schemer. C'mon. Really? it's 2013. Can we not get past this?
And then there's the men. Fourteen? Fifteen of them? They all (with the exception of the hero and the villain) conform to this fairly narrow - sort of interesting yet kind of quirky and attractive but not too attractive - character type. Oh yeah, Ellie Catton, wouldn't it be great if your life were populated with men such as these?
So the whole thing read like some bookish girl's (she's in her late 20's, i get to call her a girl) fantasy.
A very nice, highly readable fantasy, but, nonetheless, a fantasy.
The Man Booker? Really?
Dear Life - Alice Munro
Alice Munro understands people, she understands life, and is able to put that into words in a very gentle and beautiful way. This collection of short stories was a pleasure to read.
The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson
I liked this one. Sort of quirky and different. It's not brilliant, nor will it win any praises, but it had this light and refreshing quality, tidily executed.
The Fangs are a family: mum and dad are performance artists; they make movies and use their kids in the pieces. Problems arise when the children grow up.
The Smartest Kids in the World - Amanda Ripley
A description of the education systems in Poland, South Korea, and Finland; how they compare to the U.S. education system. Basically: hire good people to be teachers, train them well and then let them do their thing; don't be afraid to raise standards - kids will rise to meet them; create a cutlture that cares about learning - if parents are involved in schoolwork (not necessarily at school) then kids learn that education is important.
Anathem - Neal Stephenson
I am becoming a huge Neal Stephenson fan.
His books are science fiction, but really well thought out complex infused with humanity Science Fiction - sort of Lord of the Rings meets Suitable Boy meets Enders Game. I find Science Fiction/ Fantasy as a genre so frustrating - when it's done well it's just the best thing - but it's so rarely done well. Thank-you thank-you thank-you Mr. Stephenson for doing what you do.....
So in Anathem Neal Stephenson creats an entire world, complete with history, politics, science, relgtion, technology, philosophy (really - this is what got me - the amount of thought that went into all the background - detailed appendices complete with not just definitions, but philosophy and mathematical theory), and then constructs a grand adventure (into space of course) involving complex characters around the whole thing. Eat dust, Game of Thrones.
Narcissus and Goldmund - Herman Hesse
Okay, so the reason I'm reading this is because the lead singer/ songwriter, one Marcus Mumford, from the band Mumford & Sons recommended it on his website. He recommends a number of books, and writes about them, and (yeah - I'm defending my decision to read a book recommended by a rock star - maybe I should just put on my "I'm a loser" t-shirt and be done with it) writes about them intelligently. And I like the lyrics of his songs.
I liked this book. It follows the lives of two men; one lives life as he should, following the rules of the monastery in which he lives; the other follows his desires (lots of sex) and lives the impulsive life of a wanderer. They begin and end the book as close friends, but due to the different nature of their approach to life go years without any communication. I found the whole thing intriguing and sad and beautiful.
So Marcus Mumford's book club (on the Mumford & Sons website) is no longer to be found, but it seemed not many were reading any of the books he was reading. Poor guy, just wanted to talk about books and all his fans wanted was to tell him how awesome he is. Not so bad, really, in the grand scheme.
Still Life - Louise Penney
I read it on the plane. It's highly readable and I recommend it if you're looking for something entertaining and not too heavy for a long trip.
It's a detective novel set in Eastern Canada and everyone's very pleasant and Canadian and there's this subtle air of superiority about the whole thing that I found a bit grating, but - well - really - I'd pick up another novel by Penney next time I find myself with an airplane trip in my immediate future.
Mr. Pip - Lloyd James
Papua New Guinea - 1970: Civil war and brutatlity and a quiet little village by the beach. Mr. Pip is the white man in the white suit among the natives - he is sad, he is flawed, he introduces them to Charles Dickens' Great Expectation. Sort of Lord of the Flies for adults - brutal and, ultimately, tragic.
House Rules - Jodi Picoult
It's a book about a kid on the Asperger/ Autism spectrum. It's readable and predictable, and, I suppose, informative about many of the issues that pertain to kids on that spectrum.
Gotta admit, I'm not a Jodi Picoult fan.
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
This is nasty, clever, and lots of fun. If you're looking for a book that's really fun to read and aren't afraid of a bit of the dark side, this will work well. It's not ever going to make it into lists of 'great literature', but it's smart and engaging.
It's kind of an interesting thing - two main characters that really aren't particularly likeable, but nonetheless the sensation of wanting to follow their story.
The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson
Well.... ya know. Some lighthearted fun. Bit cliched, got annoying at times, but - well - I can see why it's up there on the bestseller lists. Not as clever as Gone Girl (see above) but very sweet and sentimental.
The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
I don't get it. I didn't enjoy this as much as I was hoping to - it's not Rushdie's best. I guess I can see why Islamic fundamentalists got really upset - Rushdie has fun messing around with religion and gods and the idea of good and evil, but the book's really not good enough to make a fuss about. Well..... there were some fun, clever bits that I enjoyed; Rushdie has a great sense of humour. Perhaps my expectation was just too high. I've got Midnight's Children sitting on the bookshelf - I'm hoping that one's better than this.
Another fun book for a fun diversion. Young boy is apprenticed to Death and has some great adventures. All happens on 'Discworld' - Pratchett's fantasy creation. Busy and silly. My kind of thing when I need to escape.
The Buddha in the Attic -
Well..... yeah.... read this for the book club. Being a Japanese immigrant to the US in the 1920's or 1930's wasn't fun and it became less fun when WW2 broke out.
The way the story is told (first person plural: we) is clever and well done. A nice touch.
A Discovery of Witches -
Twilight for middle aged women.
Page one - cliches all over the place. In the mood for some light fluffy trash so continued. Why? Got 80% of the way through and gave up. Didn't care. Not a bit - about what was happening to - to whom? Whatsername.... witchy-poo. And her vampire boyfriend.
Ready Player One -
Fun. Especially if you grew up in the eighties - cultural flashback after cultural flashback (Falco! Real Genius! Obscure references to John Hughes movies!)
High paced story, lots of action, nice twists. A perfect way to escape.
The Complaints -
Well..... way back when Ian Rankin created this ultra-cool, complex, deep character in Detective Inspector John Rebus. Detective Rebus had a great career, and Rankin eventually retired him. The protagonist of Rankin's latest, the Complaints, Malcolm Fox, seems to be Rankin's attempt at a more modern, mature, subtle character. But something's missing. Fox is okay. This story is okay. I'm trying to like it all because I'm such an Ian Rankin fan and I'm hoping he can succeed with this new character. But really, I miss John Rebus.
Live by Night-
A bit of self-indulgence. I like Dennis Lehane. Dark - but something complex in there, too.
Live by Night is the story of gangster Joe Coughlin. What I like about Lehane is that he doesn't shy away from the darker side of life, doesn't pretend that gangsters are, secretly, really nice people.Yet (despite what I just said - look at this - I'm going to contradict myself) he manages to show a more complex side (maybe it's just that with Lehane characters, the more complex side isn't particularly apologetic).
Not the best I've read by Lehane, but okay.
Bring Up the Bodies - Hillary Mantel
I'm a huge Hillary Mantel fan! And she's done it again..... Bring up the Bodies is the sequel to the decidedly fabulous Wolf Hall (Winner of the Mann Booker!) and it's just as good as the first. I liked Bring up the Bodies very much and am looking foward to reading the third book in this series (she hinted in the intro that she's not yet done with Thomas Cromwell).
Bring up the Bodies is the fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell's life from the time of Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII throught to her demise. The fun part is all of Cromwell's behind the scenes machinations. He's very thoughtful, very complex, and a profoundly good game player.
Now - Anne Boleyn. She ended up getting her head sliced off, but four men also ended up headless in the days before her execution. This is the part of the story that I found weak. Throughout both books, Mantel has painted Cromwell as a deeply ethical, while highly pragmatic, man. in Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell justifies the deaths of these four fellows just a little too easily, a little too hastily. It didn't ring true (this is the difficulty of historical fiction, and the beauty of it when it's well-done - the story is plausible). It was a difficult task to undertake - i.e. for Mantell to come up with a detailied, believable account of just exactly how Anne Boleyn and her four 'suitors' came to be beheaded (beheading a Queen was unheard of) - and while Mantel mostly pulls it off - well - this part of it (the justificationof the four suitors) didn't seem quite right. But no matter, overall the book is wonderful. Lots of good dialog and terrific use of language.
A favorite passage:
"Anne was wearing that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives."
Bring up the Bodies also won the Mann Booker.
Watership Down -
This book is special to me. It was the first chapter book I read, and then, in high school, during the daily forty minutes of silent reading, it was the book that I read and re-read over the course of three years (rather than go to the effort of bringing in something new).
I haven't read it in - well - ten? fifteen? twenty? years.... not sure.
So, I can't talk about it with any degree of objectiviity. I'm very fond of these rabbits, and have not an inconsiderable amount of empathy with them. Now, I still like all the bunnies, I still enjoy the story, I enjoy so much about this book.
In this edition, Adams has included a new introduction in which he states that it was just a story about bunnies that he made up while driving his children - it was not meant to be some great allegory about anything (I'd always wondered about General Woundwort and Efrafa - seemed like a bit of a commentary on fascism - but I'm quite happy to with the 'just a story told in the car about rabbits' premise).
Still makes my list of all time favorites.
Tenth of December -
So when the New York Times Magazine decides that the focus of its cover story will be a book - well - I'm intrigued. The story (written about the book) was compelling, too.
From the NYT article, Junot Diaz on Saunders:
"There's no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or as deep as Saunders does".
Saunders on life:
"Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, then open it up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen."
So I bought the book. It's a collection of short stories, some sort of vaguely science fiction (the world is mostly recognizable, just a few things have changed). The stories are interesting, different, subtle, well told, and intriguing. I was not let down.
Cloud Atlas -
I started this book back in - when? November? And I only seemed to be able to read a page or two at a time. It begins as the mid 19th century journal of a man (an explorer?) travelling on a ship in New Zealand and I had no interest whatsover in his musings on Moriori history nor on the details of ship life nor on his friendship with Dr. Goose; I just kept going, knowing that if so many critics enjoyed this book, it would eventually get better.
And it did. The next part was much more to my taste, as was the next part, and the part after that.
The book's a literary palindrome. The structure makes it interesting, as does the idea that it's about one particular person (identifiable by the reader due to unique body markings) at different times in history, from the recent past to well into the future. I liked the worlds Mitchell came up with, and the trajectory of history (from present day) that he invented.
The Fault in Our Stars -
It's a cancer book aimed at the teen market. Didn't think it wasmy thing - depressing and way too touchy-feely were my initial thoughts. But the book was so well reviewed - placed on the top of '2012 - best books for children' lists by a number of critics - and I have a daughter who only reads 'good' books and was thus in need of something for her, so I decided to give it a go.
I'm really glad I did. It begins very dry and cynical - sort of just what is needed. I was in no mood to feel sorry for anyone, and the main characers (both teens with stage 4 cancer) were in no mood for me to feel sorry for them, so it was a great start.
John Green writes a smart, fast-paced story full of wit, humour, and insight. By the time the inevitable sad part comes, I don't mind being sad at all.
A quick, satisfying read.
Summers on a sailboat. Sometimes, we'd drop the jib and just use the mainsail to quietly move along. My favorite spot was at the bow, lounging on the crumpled jib. Pretty sublime: crushed sail underneath, warm sun, a breeze, the noise a boat makes as it cuts through the water, salt air, quiet banter of my family in the background- so many details that will always mean nostalgic summer relaxation for me.
NW is a bit like that. Lots of details, so many of them quiet. If you don't pay attention, you'll miss the connections. This is a story of life in the northwest area of London, England. No great event happens, nor do the characters go under any dramatic transformation, but due to all the subtle detail, there's a grace to this book.
Zadie Smith is one of my favorite authors; she's produced something lovely with NW.
The Best American Science Writing - 2012
So: thousands of magazines are published each month (I googled this, it's tens of thousands, but maybe 2,000 have 'significant' circulation). There's good writing in those magazines - so if someone's going to go to the effort to figure out the good stuff, why not let them do that, and then just read the resulting selection?
The Annual 'Best American' series does that. This book is just Science Writing. In other years I've read 'Essays' and 'Science and Nature' but have yet to try 'Travel' or 'Sports'.
This year's 'Science' has lots of good articles with lots of good insight: cancer, x-rays, space travel, quantum computing, sociopathy, string theory, astronomy, multiple universes, and a bit of psychiatry.
The only essay I didn't care for was written by one Jackson Lears, as the sole purpose of the essay seemed to be to trash one Sam Harris. It was all broad strokes and gross generalizations and just generally unfair and tedious.
Hitch-22 is the memoir of the well-travelled, opinionated, intelligent, brash, and intensely ethical Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a writer and journalist who died a couple of years back of esophagus cancer. This memoir was finished as he received the news of his fatal disease - and so covers most of his life.
Christopher spent many years as a foreign correspondent, travelling throughout South America, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. He visited countries under the rule of dictatorships (Argentina, Iraq) and saw the effects on ordinary people of living under cruel and brutally corrupt governments. He is angry - really angry - about US foreign policy during certain administrations. He has fun repeatedly trashing Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig - and - well - a bunch of other politiicians. Moral outrage meet venomous contempt meet talented writer: a recipe for an interesting and irresistible read - but, ultimately, a sad commentary on the governments under which we in the west live.
Hitchen's friends included many inflential thinkers, writers and poets. He had access to those in all levels of power in many countries (and he made many friends among those in power).
Christopher's stories about his life contain neither pretention nor political correctness. On one page he'll be happily relaying his rules about drinking (it's okay to drink alone, but don't drink if you're feeling down), and then a few pages later will be a conversation with an Iraqi physician remembering life under Saddam Hussein: '"We lived without rights....And without ideas", and then a bit further on Hitchens will happily trash someone: "the pious born again creep Jimmy Carter".
My favorite chapter is the one concerning Salman Rushdie. HItchens was close to Rushdie, including during the time Rushdie's life was most at risk. Hitchens' account of Rushdie's struggles and challenges, and of Rushdie's grace and dignity in the face of censorship and fear sadly contrasts with the apathy and moral weakness of the governments of most western countires.
Well worth reading.
December 6, 2012
Ethan Frome -
Well - this book is delightfully well written - what's the term? - a 'gem'. Ethan Frome is a gem of a book. But man - Edith Wharton is bitter or something. (SPOILER ALERT) Poor Ethan's had a bit of a miserable life, he takes a liking to a pretty young thing and - BAM!! - rest of his life he has to look after two unhappy women..... take that you wandering-eye dude you!!!! Nothing like using your briliant book writing skills to exact revenge - what fun! Go Edith! (Apparently her marriage wasn't too great).
David Eggers. I was first introduced to him years ago - with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - which I thoroughly enjoyed. I've not picked up anything else since then - despite the fact that his books are well received. Okay - wait a sec - I have read several of the McSweeney's publications. And these have been fantastic. Eggers runs a publishing company in San Francisco, and publishes these quaterly journals- McSweeney's. Each one has its own theme, they're always a little different (thoughtful alternative), and the format (i.e paperback, hardcover, magazine - you never know what you're going to get - one was a hardcover with two spines) changes with each issue.
I happened across A Hologram for the King while perusing the 'Notable Books of 2012' list on Amazon. The reviews were mixed, but intriguing - a modern day 'Wating for Godot'? And then there was the book itself. It's beautiful. Someone took CARE in designing and crafting this. So. Well. A beautiful book that thought it could redo 'Waiting for Godo't? That was that - I had to have it.
I've read it and really enjoyed it. It's not a high-paced, super-exciting book, but an expertly crafted work that reads just like Waiting for Godot. Which is brilliant, I think - to be able to recreate that famous play but set it in 2012? And I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and it's still with me (good books, good works of art - they last - if I can remember them days, months, years later - that's a good one).
November 11, 2012
How Children Succeed -
A well needed refreshing view on raising children. Trashes the current warm fuzzy child-centric approach that seems to be so prevalent in schools today (from what i've read and in my limited experience).
Paul Tough is an education reporter for the New York Times and has spent years covering education in the USA: from classrooms in the ghetto to classrooms in wealthy areas and many of the various experiments (into which millions of dollars have been poured) in education in various parts of the USA.
The first half of this book is better - the argument is stronger; the second half seems to be more about relaying anecdotes and drawing conclusions a little too quickly (the logic's not quite as solid).
Entertaining, refreshing, and highly recommended to all parents and all those involved in educating children.
People of the Book -
Well. Ya know. Nobel Prize winner blah blah blah.
There's something missing.
The book's perfect - great story, great characters, well researched background material - but it's too perfect. It's like a perfectly clean and tidy and impeccably decorated home on a lovely tree lined street - just so - but without personality.
It'sthis thing we're doing - as a society we've figured out how everything "should" be; there are magazines and self-help books galore, telling us how to 'improve', how to be our 'very best selves' and to 'live the life we were meant to live'. I've had enough. I've done the 'should'. Being human is about - well - being 'human' - which to me means embracing the good and the bad. I find there's too much emphasis on covering up or dealing with or hiding the bad, and somehow it takes away from what makes us all interesting, what makes us individuals, what makes us human. Please, write the books and attack the difficult subjects with honesty and without the cloying political correctness.
However, if you like your books perfect, you'll love this. (Even if you're like me and prefer your books a little not so perfect, you may well still like this - as I stated in the previous paragraph, it is very well written).
So - what's the book about? Well, it's about Hanna, who restores books. She flies to Sarajevo, just after the recent war, and is asked to restore a "Haggabah" - a 500 year old Jewish book. People of the Book is about the people involved in the Haggabah's history, and about Hanna and her adventures restoring the book.
Okay, I finished three within four days of each other:
The Immortal Live of Henrietta Lacks -
I've been dancing around this one for some time. New York Times Bestseller, critically acclaimed - my kind of thing. But I never picked it up because it just felt like a 'well, here's a whole book about someone who didin't do much but you get to learn all about her just because of some chance of events' - which really didn't appeal. But when my book club (thank-you, book club) chose this as their latest selection - well - there it was - time to give it a read.
I really enjoyed it. It's an interesting story, maybe because the author included so much detail about what it took to obtain the information needed for the book.
Henrietta Lacks was a woman who lived in the first half of the 20th century. In 1951, she was diagnosed with cancer and while undergoing treatment, some of her cells were taken without her knowledge.
This book is about Henrietta, her life, her cells, and Henrietta's family's life from the time Henrietta died to present times. It's about how doctors have obtained cells, how researchers have obtained cells for their various projects, how doctors have made use of patients for research, and how the law has changed with regards to the rights of both scientists and patients with regards to that research. Finally, this book is about Rebecca Skloot's adventure in getting the story for this book - her interactions with the researchers and her interactions with the Lacks family.
I think it's the way that Skloot weaves these separate tales together that make the book successful. So - lots of information, lots of story-telling, overall a really good read.
The Home -
Bill had fun with this one. He's just bought a new (old) house, and he tells us about each one of the rooms, the history of his house and then the history of that particular room. I'm a bit of a Bill Bryson fan - he has fun with his material - he strikes me as naturally curious: he asks good questions, and enjoys whatever information his research yields. And he's quite happy to throw in dry comments here and there when it all gets a bit ridiculous (which happens frequently). I had my iPhone next to me as I read this book. Each time he mentioned some style of architecture of furniture design I could use google to get a picture - which very much added to my understanding and enjoyment.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu
I liked this one, too. Mark Adams goes on a trip to Maacchu Picchu. He has an adventure, and tells us about his adventure and about the history of Machu Picchu.
I watched a documentary about the site in the middle of reading this book, and I was struck by how much more richer the information is that's conveyed through pictures. The book made more sense once I had really good visuals of all the stuff contained within it.
Well, I guess I've had a busy four months. I didn't have as much time to read as usual, let alone to update this, but everything's pretty much normal again, so here I am. Here's what I did get around to reading:
The Weird Sisters -
Well, if you like a touchy feely everyone goes through a life crisis during which they learn something about themselves and their loved ones and then hugs at the end, you'll like this.
Not really my thing - a bit too cliched and predictable. I had to really work to finish it, and the only reason I made it to the end was because after getting two thirds of the way through it I figured I'd better just finish the damn thing off.
If you're wondering, it's about three sisters. They're the daughters of an English LIt prof (nothing like some literary pretension to appeal to the book club set?) The eldest is the responsible, soon to be married one, the middle is the career-oriented slut, and the youngest is the bohemian. They all end up back in their hometown and - yeah - have to deal with themselves and each other.
Simultaniously readable and annoying.
This was an interesting one. Crazy premise - young engineer comes to 18th century Paris charged with the job of arranging clearing out thousands of bodies from an overflowing cemetary. He has some interesting adventures.
I really enjoyed this book. Completely different, lovely rhythm too it, compelling characters.. I really got the impression that the author very much enjoyed his characters and their setting - that he just sort of delighted in their escapades around Paris.
Fifty Shades of Grey -
Okay - so this was sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for weeks (all three of the series I think) - so I had to give it a go.
Yuck. Crap crap crap crap crap. I ended up skimming through the final half of the novel. It was all just such a cliche. When the main guy is the most brilliant, attractive, physically fit, rich man in the USA, with perfectly fitting clothing, all I can think is of some fat unattractive dweeb in an unlaundered sweat-stained grey t-shirt, muching on Cheetos and hunched over a computer in his windowless basement suite, living out his fantasy through the book he's writing. Apparently neither Cheetos nor dirty t-shirts are a breeding ground for subtletly.
The femaie character (to whom the rich, beautiful, ultra-successful man feels powerfully attracted) is a virgin (yup - virgin - but of course - guy fantasy - right there) and when she ends up in the apartment of the guy (the super-rich ultra powerful, ultra attractive, brilliant guy) oh - well - get this - she intuitively knows how to perform every sex act like a seasoned employee of Nevada's Mustang Ranch. Please.
As the book did make the bestseller lists I was hoping for a little subtlety - but no. Read like something straight out of Penthouse. Boring.
This was fun.
IThis book is a thriller - an action story - like a Tom Clancy sort of thing but - kabaam - bigger, smarter, more ambitious, decidedly more complicated. I began the book- and was wondering - how do you mix Chinese hackers, terrorists, Western USA computer megamillionaires, Russian gangsters, the British MI6 (and I think there's some other stuff, too) - in any way that makes any sort of sense?
Stephenson pulls it off.
I had a great time reading this. The characters were fun (although Stephenson does have a habit of putting small ethnic women with great big white gangster-ish guys - sort of interesting....), the plot twisted all over the place, and it all ended up with a suitably nutty climax.
The Power of Habit -
Some non-fiction for a change of pace.
This is one of those take a great concept that you could cover off in a chapter or two and somehow keep spinning it to make a whole book. Consequentially, I found it interesting for the first few chapters but then - well - it was just the same material revisited. So I skimmed through the rest and that was that.
(Changing your life is about slowly changing your habits, if you're wondering).
The Hunger Games Trilogy -
Young girl in futuristic earth goes off to fight to the death in the 'Hunger Games', reminiscent of the gladiatorial combat in ancient rome (and modern day professional sports?)
The interesting thing to me was the 'mom debate' over the ending. (Spoiler Alert!) The book ends with the good guys (a hidden society of the poor, repressed underdogs) conquering the bad guys (the rich, privileged governing body that put on the Hunger Games each year to keep the popultion repressed). But in the final chapters, we learn that the ethics of the underdogs are really no better than those of the previous rulers; that they, too, will resort to extreme tactics to gain and retain power.
The reaction of my mom friends fell into two categories: those who found the ending 'depressing' and 'sad' - they were looking for a triumph of good over evil; and those who found it 'reallistic' and thought that it 'reflected the reality of our world today'. (I fell in with the second camp).
The Sisters Brothers
I liked this one. (mostly - the ending was a bit odd but more on that later - I'm going to talk about the ending in the last paragraph so DON'T READ IT if you don't want to know the ending....
This is the story of Eli Sisters and Charlie Sisters (see? the Sisters brothers), a couple of assassins who resided in the western USA at the time of the gold rush during the mid 1800's. It's a hoot - these two guys have great adventures & kill lots of people, which they're very good at it - & they're generally very cold blooded - and the book is written very tongue-in-cheek (all the murdering - it has to be....)
It's told by Eli, the more gentle of the two brothers (if gentle is the correct word). Eli's pretty much aware how screwed up everything he's doing is, but he just kinda goes along with it - perplexed.
SPOILER ALERT!!!! Okay - this is the screwed up part - the book ends with the brothers realizing that their lifestyle is kind of wacked and going home to mom. I'm sorry - but - going home to mom?!?! I get the whole major existential issues with being a killer thing - but to resolve it by sending these guys home to live with mom - like 'failure to launch' on a massive scale. Couldn't they have just visited mom - and then gone on to something else? Oh well.....
Enjoyed the book....would recommend it.
When God Was a Rabbit -
Well....it's nice... it's really nice.... and well done & all that. I guess there's not a huge amount about it that makes it stand out - that makes it different from all the other touchy feely books about growing up and coming of age that are out there. Well - maybe there are a things. I dunno - maybe I'm just not in the mood for another touchy feely coming of age book. Maybe if I had been I'd be raving about this one.....
I really liked this one. I wasn't sure if I would - it was one of those 'I'm not sure if I want to read this but there aren't any other books that look enjoyable and - well - gosh - it was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year...." Yeah, that and Lit - New York Times is consistently pretty good at getting it right.
The book begins slowly - Natalia's grandfather has died and she travels to a remote village to investigate his death and collect his personal effects. We are slowly introduced to various characters Natalia's grandfather told her stories about: the Tiger's Wife, and to the Deathless Man.
It all just kept getting more interesting and more compelling.
Interesting quote - Natalia's grandfather to Natalia upon hearing that she wanted to be a pediatic surgeon:
"When men die, they die in fear,....They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But chldren die how they have been living - in hope. They don't know what's happening, so they expect nothing, they don't ask you to hold their hand - but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you're on your own. Do you understand?"
This was fun. Nothing particularly brilliant - but fun. I haven't watched 30 Rock, nor have I seen her sketches (in particular on Sarah Palin) on Saturday Night LIve - so some of the references were completely lost on me - but no matter. Tina's sweet, down to earth, & has this strong feminist streak. Fun.
I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book - it looked a little too "chick lit" - and that title - "lit" - way too cool. But the reviews were good, and the New York Times called it a "Notable Book of the Year" - which is always a good sign - so I went ahead and picked it up.
I'm glad I did.
This is the story of the twentys and thirtys (and a bit of her forties) of a really smart, at first kinda screwed up but getting un-screwed up person. It took until I was about a third of the way into the book for me to realize that - oh - Mary - Mary is in the book and Mary wrote the book - this is a memoir. Cool....
Mary's really smart (PhD - (PhD - how much/ /little does that say?)) and honest and straight up about everything (drinking, suicide attempt, failed marriage). We begin the book with Mary at seventeen - her adventures in university, getting married, having a child, the marriage not working, Mary's drinking (I'm waaaaay oversimplifying here).
Interesting thing in this book: Mary attends AA. Tthis is probably the first account I've read that makes sense of the whole "turn yourself over to God" thing that I've read. That's one of the steps of AA - that you have to give yourself up to a higher power - & you won't get better if you can't do it. And there are the people who go with that waaaay too quickly and the people who ultimately have difficulty grasping that - so don't.
Mary's a complete cynic and doesn't buy it. But as she goes through her journey she sort of does - but in a more in a I'm still not sure I believe in God but I'll go through the motions if that's what works. And then when it works she sort of starts attending church - still cynical but kind of somehow there. And still making snarky comments about the whole thing - but humbled, too (if that makes any sense) - and believing - in her own way. So I appreciated that - she wasn't just going to let go of her principles but at the same time really tried to make sense of it all.
Anyways, I guess this is the third book she's written about her life - the first two are Liar's Club and Cherry. I'm so thrilled with this one I'll have to go hunt down Liar's Club.
We Need to Talk About Kevin -
I was nervous about reading this book.
I've been wandering around it for a couple of years. It looks interesting - the story of a teenage psychopath - but it's the sort of book that if it's not well done would be not just disappointing but would really upset me. There are far too many, in my opinion, false assumptions and unrealistic expectations about motherhood out there and, as a mother, I find the best thing to do is to simply ignore it all, much less read an entire novel embodying that which makes no sense to me. But....this book....winner of the Orange Prize...what if it were done well???
Well - I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin. So much so that I'm keen to read more by its author, . She's fearless, intelligent, and honest. From the "About the Author" section:
"As for my literary career, I cheerfully admit to having been an abject failure for most of it....I now look back on that protracted era of unremitting disappointment...with a nostaligia for the liberating nature of obscurity one can only marshal with an at least moderately raised profile. Failure achieves its romantic glow once firmly finite".
"You do not want to meet me. You do not care what I eat for breakfast. You do not want to know about my exercise regime or my fondness for second-hand clothes. All that could possibly interest you in this volume lies between the first and last lines of the novel itself".
Bam! (Take that, nosy reader!)
Kevin Khatchadourian is a grade ten mass murderer - he kills nine students in his highschool gymnasium on a Thursday (referred throughout the novel as Thursday). I like that we're told what Kevin's crime is from the beginning - no tension around what he did or didn't do.
The book is comprised of a series of letters from Kevin's mother, Eva, to his father, Franklin, in the period after the murder. In the letters, Eva dissects, analyzes, and deconstructs Kevin's life, from preconception to the current day, including her visits to Kevin in juvenile prison, in an effort to understand why her son felt compelled to commit such a heinous crime.
While I was reading this book, not only was I analyzing it as to whether or not it was believable (does Shriver paint an accurate portrait of the life of a child that leads the child to commit such an abhorent crime at the age of fifteen?) but, once I accepted Shriver's premise (that the actions of her characters would lead to such an event) , why does Kevin go on his killing spree? Is it Eva's and Franklin's "fault", or was Kevin born to kill?
I think that Kevin was born with the type of personality that made it possible for him to become a mass-murderer. But how many people are born with that type of personality and go on to lead productive lives?
I think that it was the way that Kevin was parented that allowed the more difficult aspects of his personality to dominate, which led to him committing an atrocity. I also think there's an aspect of society, that holds mothers to a certain standard, that presents mothers with so many "shoulds", and Eva didn't know how to resolve the disconnect between her own instincts and these "shoulds", so, fatally, she chooses to repress her own instincts.
When she first discovers she is pregnant, she is "white" and "strangely cold", but rather than discuss this with her husband she spends the afternoon taking the time to "assemble myself into the glowing mother-to-be. Instinctively, I chose a plain cotton sundress..." Later that evening with her husband, "I was beginning to intuit that full-blown maturity was not so very different from childhood. Both were states in their extreme that were all about following the rules" and "I couldn't talk to you". Eva is following the rules, some idea she has of what being pregnant is supposed to be, and repressing all that it actually is to her.
On the day Kevin is born, Eva desribes childbirth as " the whole thing was going wrong from the start.....I was not following the program....I had dismally failed...I was a freak". Later she declares, "I made a vow: I would never reveal to anyone on earth that childbirth had left me unmoved". I don't think it is that she had these feelings that led to Kevin being who he is, but that she insists on repressing them, on covering them up.
The pattern continues - "I had refrained from throwing that self-evident diagnosis of postnatal depression down on our coffee table like a trophy but had kept this formal accreditation to myself."
And there are moments in Kevin's childhood where Kevin is misbehaving, and rather than follow her instincts Eva suppresses them and instead chooses to subscribe to her ideas of what children "should" be.
Genetics dictates that our children are like us; if we are given a child whose personality in some areas does not fit the so-called norm, that uniqueness will have many of the qualities of our own uniqueness. Kevin's personality seemed to me to be much more similar to Eva's than to his father's; it was Eva who really understood him, not Franklin. Had Eva had more faith in her own abilities, had she been more forgiving of her own shortcomings, perhaps she would have become the mother that Kevin needed and perhaps Kevin's story would have finished differently.
Brilliantly done and much to think about.
The Night Circus -
This is lovely. It's very visual - full of elaborate, detailed, creative images of the exhbits in a circus. Not an ordinary circus - think Cirque du Soleil but then multiply that by ten, and add in with the contortionists/gymnasts & the rest of it some food, the weather, nature, mazes; make it all interactive; add in lots of real magic and spread it throughout an indeterminate number of circus tents through which people may wander at their leisure.
I enjoyed reading this book just for the privelege of being immersed into Morgenstern's Night Circus.
It's interlaced with a story - an elaborate, detailed, creative story with all sorts of interesting characters. The plot: there's a contest (I really don'w want to give too much away) and the contest involves magic, and it's the magical contest that provides the tension and the drama.
Different, creative, interesting, compelling, delightful: I very much enjoyed this book.
Gone, Baby, Gone -
A twisty, turny, gritty thriller. An earlier work - I didn't enjoy it as much as his more recent stuff - not quite as polished and at this stage he needed polishing. But the stuff I like about his more recent stuff is here already - the interesting characters, the plot that's unpredictable - a really good read.
What I like about Lehane: there are no black and white characters and he likes that - the exploring all the shades of grey of human personalities.
February 1, 2012
I'm working on Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone. So far - well - it's an earlier work and not as well done as his latest stuff. But it's okay.
And I'm also fixing the links on this site - I think most of them are working now - but not all. I'm also going through and fixed odd spelling and grammar errors (my apologies for these).
Mystic River -
I love Dennis Lehane....
Have you ever been out to dinner somewhere really good - like really interesting delicious food - and the next day you go out to dinner somewhere else also with really good food - and you do this for a while and eventually you get sick of eating what you know is good food but it's starting to taste pretentious and all you want is a good home cooked burger?
Dennis Lehane produces the absolute best home cooked burgers (metaphorically speaking).
(I guess what I'm trying to say is that I need a break from the so-called good, critically acclaimed books for a bit).
What have I read by Dennis Lehane so far? Shutter Island, The Given Day, and now Mystic River. I've loved them all - they've all got great plots, interesting earthy characters, they're not predictable, and I just can't put them down 'til I'm done.
About a week ago, I'd begun this other book (this critically acclaimed thing)- and it was okay - but it was the too many times eating perfect food thing - it wasn't working for me. Anyways, I picked up Mystic River and loved it. I've just gone out & picked up Gone, Baby, Gone (I guess I'm into burgers for a while).
My other favorite burger cooker is Ian Rankin - gritty detective fare based in Edinburgh. Yeah.
The Mysterious Benedict Society -
From the Junior section of the library.
This is a story of a young boy who, one day, because of his amazing intellectual abilities, finds himself part of the Mysterious Benedict Society, along with other gifted/misfit children. (Enders Game, Harry Potter, The Belgarion - there's more - this is such a common theme - 10 or 11-year-old doesn't fit in, is whisked away to his/her destiny. Somewhere, right now, there are 1000's of kids just waiting to be rescued and soon they'll grow up and become novelists and we'll get new stories about children whisked away to their true destinies.....)
Okay, I feel really crappy. I wasn't very nice about 1Q84 and think it was because I was so disappointed - so I took it out on the book more than was fair. It's not a bad book. It's just a book that started out so amazingly well - everything flowed well and there was so much creativity. It started with such huge promise and should have been amazing but wasn't. But I didn't have to be quite as nasty so I'm sorry. And I feel bad for not saying more about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! She tried - really tried - to make a good book - and I was still recovering from the disappointment of 1Q84, so I couldn't be objective about it.
On to better things....
A Moveable Feast -
Hurray for Hemingway! I needed this. This book is why I love reading - clear, funny, witty, insightful.
This is Hemingway's account of his life in Paris before he became well known. I just love it for its sincerity, its frankness, its warmth, its fearlessness in examining the human condition (what I think we're lacking somewhat here in 2012 - we're too keen to smooth over the so-called 'rough bits' instead of embracing them).
I can't review this book. Girl grows up in eccentric family, disaster strikes, girl has life changing adventure and learns something.
(Okay for a young novelist).
What to say? I finished 1Q84. Sigh. This book began so promisingly, and it gradually devolved into - well - too much of a past middle-aged Japanese dude's self-indulgent fantasy.
I sort of feel bad being critical (sort of) - it was ambitious, and he did start out really really really amazingly well. And even in the second half, so much of it was really well done. But - oh - yuck - here we go - what I had issues with:
1. Waaaay too much info on what the protagonist eats (lightly (how she eats) - steamed veggies (and fruit)). Can you imagine a character in a Dostoevsky book eating steamed veggies and fruit? He'd somehow metaphorically have them skewered by the end of chapter one....
2.Too much info on the protagonists's appearance. She's slim with big breasts (wasn't this a dragon tattoo thing - adrogynous women with large breasts? Can we just put this in a men in the early 21st century" anthropology textbook or something? We get it - you like skinny little women with giant boobs). Personally, I'd like to pick up a book without having to watch these odd fantasies work their way through the pages - makes me want to visit YouTube for barbie demolition videos.
3. Lots of weird sex.
4. Loose ends all over the place. And really, this is my main pet peeve. I could have put up with all the other stuff if he'd have completed the story in the manner in which he began it. But I was left with too many questions (***SPOILER ALERT***) Who are the so-called Little People and what is it they are really after? What is the point of Tengo & Aomame's immaculately conceived child? Was Tengo's dad really the NHK dude who haunted Aomame and Tengo? What was the deal with the crow? Was that some kind of Little People stand in?)
Anyways - just kind of disappointing. The book is huge - which I don't mind if it's worth it (War & Peace, A Suitable Boy, Wolf's Hall was getting there). And I think it was that it began so well. If it had started out weak and then finished it strong, I wouldn't have been left feeling so hollow.
December 18, 2011
I picked up Hakuri Mukamuri's 1Q84.
It seems to be the trendy, critically acclaimed book of the moment, and when I found out that it's got this science fantasy element - well (I've a weakness for science fantasy) - I had to give it a go.
I'm at about page 280, and so far it's absolutely fantastic. Just really interesting writing that keeps me going back to read some more. It reminds me a book from a few years ago by Susannah Clarke - Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Both books are big, and both books have this element of the supernatural, the definitely not of this world. But not a huge amount of that. Ninety to ninety five percent is normal - Mukamuri's book is set in Japan in 1984 and Clarke's book is set in England in the late eighteenth century. I really like how they both do this - have this normal book with this quiet thread of something magical, something not quite normal.