Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Supreme Court

In 2007 Jeffrey Toobin wrote The Nine: Inside the World of the Supreme Court. While traveling this summer we found it a most interesting and informative audio CD which I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in the workings of the court. The personalities as well as political persuasions on the court vary widely, as we all know, but there were surprises behind the scenes, such as the strong friendship between Ginsberg and Scalia. It was a real surprise to read about Clarence Thomas, who is most jovial and talkative with the staff working in the court building, who goes on RV vacations and holds forth with folks in the countryside, yet virtually never says a word in the court. The importance of Sandra Day O'Connor as a critical swing vote in so many cases, and the drama around her replacement was intriguing. There is extensive and compelling history behind the abortion issue, separation of church and state issues, and the people working behind the scenes attempting to influence the court in specific directions. It's a worthwhile read/listen to a good analytical writer who knows and understands the workings of the highest court in our country.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Family Memories

It's a familiar plot line. A traumatic event causes a character to examine his life, dredging up memories of his past in order to come to terms with a tragedy. In the case of Martin Lambert in Dennis McFarland's first novel The Music Room, the event is the suicide of his younger brother Perry. The call comes from the New York police just as Martin is cleaning out his San Francisco apartment and struggling to accept the ending of his marriage. He heads east to try to sort out the reasons his brother chose to end his life.

What follows is Martin's search, both in the past and in the present, to make sense of what has happened. McFarland beautifully describes Martin's memories of his unconventional childhood, fragments that slowly fit together to reveal some of the reasons for the difficulties he and his brother faced as adults. In his search for answers in New York, Martin becomes involved with his late brother's girlfriend as they both look for understanding of Perry's loss in each other.

The two brothers and their father are all musicians, and McFarland's writing often seems to have a musical quality, not just because of the beauty of his prose, but also because of the layered non-linear way that past, present and even Martin's dreams are woven together. Although it may sound relentlessly dark, there are moments of humor and an ending that offers a sort of redemption.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's a Parent to Do?

Or a grandparent or a teacher or anyone having contact with children? Nurtureshock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman is a fascinating book which raises as many questions as it may seem to answer. The subtitle of the book is New Thinking about Children. It is a collection of 10 chapters that can generally stand alone but which taken together turn the world of child development upside down - depending of course on your vantage point. (Example: Is emotional intelligence really such a good thing if imprisoned felons have higher emotional intelligence that the population as a whole?) And though most of the chapters deal with very young children, a couple of the chapters do concern teenagers (their sleep requirement, driver's ed, rebellion).

It is hard to escape the attention of late that the media have given to the advances in neuroscience but, with deference probably to the large number of baby boomers, the emphasis has been on the developments affecting life's later years. It turns out as you will learn from this book that there have also been astounding discoveries by neuroscientists with respect to the very young. And the designs of the experiments with the very young are ingenious!

When my children were younger the popular parenting approach was STEP (Systematic Training for Effecting Parenting) with its emphasis on "I" messages and logical consequences. More recently the approach seems to have been "All praise all the time" and helicopter parenting. No doubt this book will not be the last word on children and their development. Children's lying, sibling fighting, racial tolerance, language development are complicated and important issues for which there is no one magic formula. But understanding the principles set out in this book is important. It is also a call to action - to change the way we test for gifted children, to talk to children explicitly about race, to re-think the benefits of Sesame Street, ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bittersweet Vacations

Richard Russo’s latest novel “That Old Cape Magic” is different from his past novels that have garnered so much praise and an almost cult following. This novel does not take place in upstate New York, where Russo was born, nor does it deal with the blue collared workers who he is so famous for bringing to life.

“That Old Cape Magic” takes place at two weddings, a year apart, that are set in Cape Cod and Maine. The “hero” of Russo’s latest story is Jack Griffin, known as Griffin. Griffin is a 55 year old college professor at a liberal arts college in Connecticut. And Griffin is having a mid-life crisis. Griffin’s father has died and he is carrying his father’s ashes to disburse at Cape Cod, where Griffin and his parents spent every summer. It is here that Richard Russo unleashes his skills as a comedy writer. The dilemma of where exactly to throw these ashes gets ridiculous.

Griffin’s parents were Ivy League educated academics that ended up at a boring college in, as they will only refer to it, “the mid fucking west”. But every summer they spent a month on Cape Cod. It was their dream to live there some day and as they drove over the Sagamore Bridge to Cape Cod, Griffin’s parents would sing “That Old Black Magic” substituting Cape for Black. But Griffin’s parents were miserable where ever they were.

The story progresses as Griffin relives his childhood thinking about what horrible parents they were but unable to let them go, or to forgive them. What he does do is alienate his wife of thirty some years and try to recapture the glory of his days as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.

Russo has written a novel about family, nostalgia, and discontent. Griffin realizes that he cannot escape his parents, shut out their voices in his head, or return to the fantasy of his youth. Richard Russo has added some hilarious scenes and witty dialogue to his repertoire. This may be a new direction for Mr. Russo and it’s fun to read. A mid-life crisis with some hilarity mixed in with introspection makes for a great story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable

One of the reasons that people join book groups is to have a forum for discussing books that they read with others who have read the same books. To date, our blog has not been like that. It has functioned more as a resource for finding interesting books to read, for answering the question: What should I read next? We hope that you have taken some of our suggestions and felt rewarded.

Now we would like to introduce the Living2Read Roundtable to provide that much-desired forum for discussion. We want to have a real conversation with you, albeit in cyberspace, about some of our books. If by reading we are able to broaden our understanding of others and deepen our understanding of ourselves, then how much more enriching to share that understanding.

We have selected the week of Nov. 2 - 6 to talk about The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is a prize-winning novel set in the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. (Available in paperback). Our hope is that, with this advance notice, more of us can read the book and then, during that designated week in November, post Comments to share our thoughts and opinions about it.

So mark your calendars and start reading - we hope you'll join in!

Why Stop?

What makes you give up on a novel? We've all done it – you read 50 or 100 pages and then just don't want to keep going. It hasn't happened to me in a while, but I reached in point in Susan Choi's A Person of Interest where I closed the book and had no desire to open it again. Why does that happen?

For some people it's important that they like the main characters. That's never been my criterion. I still remember the horror on my high school English teacher's face when I told her that my favorite character in “David Copperfield” was Uriah Heep. Her lip actually curled. But he was much more interesting than that simp Dora.

Obviously poor writing can cause any reader to give up, but sometimes even a good writer can fail to hold your interest. In the case of Susan Choi, whose “American Woman” I had enjoyed, I just got too annoyed with the main character. Choi's book includes plot elements from the real-life stories of both the Unibomber and Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-born American scientist at Los Alamos who was accused of espionage. Ho's fictional main character, also named Lee, a Chinese-born math professor, is suspected by the FBI of being connected to the bomb which killed another professor. And in order for this suspicion to grow, Cho needs the professor to act incredibly guilty (and stupid) when being questioned by the FBI. After a while I just got too annoyed with him, and with Choi. I felt like she was manipulating her character in order to force her plot into the direction she wanted to go, and I just balked at following her.

So think back on books you've abandoned. Can you identify the reason you did it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Do Not Go Gently

If you have ever wondered what it will feel like when your mind and body start to betray you as you near the end of your life, this book will terrify you. How the author Oscar Casares, who looks from the book jacket picture to be no more than 40 (aside: he has done a masterful job of keeping his personal data off the internet), can write so convincingly of his main character who is 91 is a mystery. I can hope that he is wrong – but I doubt it. It feels quite true.

Amigoland is the name of the nursing home in Brownsville, Texas to which Don Fidencio, 91, has been sent by his daughter. He has enough mental agility and physical mobility to be out of place with the other residents. Casares’ descriptions of the home and its residents are heart-breaking – and terrifying.

The other actors in the novel are Don Celestino, his younger brother at age 70, and Don Celestino’s girlfriend Socorro, age 38. Don Fidencio has repeatedly expressed his wish to visit the birthplace of his grandfather across the border in Mexico. After much disagreement the three of them set out on this journey/pilgrimage. The incidents of a lost passport, lost medicine, incontinence, missed busses might be humorous unless you have ever had to deal with similar incidents with an aging parent or relative.

For most of the book I was focused on the geographical journey that the three were making: the descriptions of an unfamiliar part of the country and the travel mechanics. Only at the end did I realize that each of them was on a much more significant inner journey of his and her own making.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Academic Satire

All I knew about Kingsley Amis was that he was the curmudgeonly father of novelist Martin Amis. But I recently stumbled on a list of most influential books of the 20th century, which included his first novel Lucky Jim. Published in 1953, the novel associated Amis with the “Angry Young Men” school of British literature, working and middle class writers and playwrights whose anti-establishment works contrasted with the more urbane and delicate upper class writers of the 30's and 40's (think Evelyn Waugh).

The title character Jim Dixon is a lecturer in Medieval History at an unnamed provincial university in the early 1950's. He is frustrated by the stiflingly pretentious atmosphere, yet he gamely attempts to win favor with his superior, the absent-minded and boring Professor Welch, in order to hold on to his job, even though he loathes it. He's also involved in a quasi-relationship with a woman he alternately likes and despises. Jim's rage at the pretensions he is forced to observe is relieved by two methods – copious amounts of alcohol and making faces when no one is looking.

The results are almost always hilarious. Amis is adept at painting quick humorous sketches (“a small bullied-looking woman with unabundant brown hair”), but he's at his best in his longer descriptions of Jim's predicaments. I have probably never read a funnier description of waking up with a hangover (“His mouth had been used as a latrine for some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he's somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police.”), and it gets even funnier when Jim discovers the damage he has done to his guest room at Professor Welch's house in his inebriated state.

Viewed from more than fifty years later, it's hard for me to measure the impact this biting satire must have had on post-war British society, but it certainly provided me with lots of laughs.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another Classic

For most people the name Charlotte Bronte is quickly associated with her novel Jane Eyre - but only with Jane Eyre. For some time I have had on my bookshelf a copy of Bronte's Villette. How it came to be there I have no idea. But at 464 pages it was unlikely that I would be reading it any time soon. So I decided to take advantage of a free audio download to listen to it while running. It turned out to be a great choice with one reservation. Villette is the name of the town in which most of the story takes place (not the name of the main character as I had erroneously supposed). It is located in Belgium where they speak French. Bronte has included a lot of French dialogue in her book - which is fine if you have the printed version that includes the translations in the back. But somewhat difficult if you are listening to a recording and your French is very rusty. That said, I don't think that I missed too much.

In the most general terms this is the story of a poor English girl Lucy Snowe on her own whose luck or fate brings her to a girls' school in Villette where she becomes a teacher of English. As you would expect Bronte is superb in describing the physical surroundings as well as portraits of a host of other characters. Bronte herself lived for a time in a Brussels boarding school where she taught English so she can write vividly from experience.

One of the aspects that I found particularly interesting was the portrayal of the differences and animosity between the Romanists (aka Catholics) and the Protestants. Lucy is the sole Protestant among the Catholic faculty of the school. Great efforts are made to convert her in the course of which Bronte lays out for the reader/listener some of the significant differences between these two philosophies and their respective views of life. So much more interesting than reading an encyclopedia.

The ending of the book took my breath away. I still want to say "Wait - that can't be," but of course it can and for Bronte's purposes it can only be that way.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Boy's Life

What first attracted me to Tony Earley’s novel “The Blue Star” was that the New York Times included in its list of Notable Books for 2008. It seems that Tony Earley had written a book in 2000, “Jim The Boy”, that was a critical success but not necessarily a best seller. As it turns out “The Blue Star” is a sequel to “Jim The Boy”. However, as I found out, it was not necessary to read “Jim The Boy” to fully enjoy “The Blue Star”.

The story takes place in 1941, in Aliceville, North Carolina, a small southern town surrounded by hills, mountains and woods. Jim Glass is 17 years old, entering his senior year of high school in this small town where everyone knows and respects his family. Jim has had an idyllic childhood being raised by his widowed mother and his three bachelor uncles. But now Jim is approaching manhood and things are changing. World War II looms before the country and these young men. Some older “boys” from Aliceville have enlisted.

Jim struggles with what he should do and what he wants to do. Last year he dated the perfect girl that his mother loved. But now he finds himself strongly attracted to Chrissie Steppe, the daughter of an infamous Cherokee Indian and a white mother. Chrissie’s life is very complicated and not one that can easily include Jim. But Jim is persistent and anxious to move beyond the protective enclave of Aliceville and his prosperous family.

There is an interesting and somewhat humorous element to Jim’s story that includes his best friend,Dennis Deane, who says ridiculous things and finds himself in the age old predicament of impregnating a girl on their first haphazard attempt with sex.

Although at first glance this may appear to be a simple story, in the hands of Tony Earley it becomes a beautiful love story that takes us back to a time when life was so much simpler. Tony Earley has described his novels as “children’s books for adults”. “The Blue Star” is written with the precise, lyrical prose that turns a simple story into one that is mesmerizing and difficult to put down. The “blue star” of the title refers to the service banner that families hung in World War II for the men (boys) serving their country.

It took Tony Earley seven years to write the sequel to “Jim The Boy” and he has stated that he isn’t finished with Jim Glass. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for Tony Early to tell us what happens to this wonderful character as he grows and becomes a man.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Rabbit Runs Down

I guess this is it for Rabbit and me. I have experienced the span of Rabbit's life and Updike's clear and beautiful description of it in less than a year. It took Rabbit fifty-eight years to live it, and Updike forty years to write it. Rabbit at Rest is John Updike's last Rabbit novel, and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is definitely slowing down. Ten years have passed since “Rabbit is Rich”, and Harry and his wife Janice now live half the year in a condo in Florida, while their son Nelson has taken over the management of their Toyota dealership in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Has the passage of time brought wisdom and contentment to the old basketball player? Not a chance.

But Harry's mortality is catching up with him, and he broods over his body's frailties, even as he continues to scarf junk food. The inevitable result is a heart attack on a Florida beach, and a vivid description of Harry's angioplasty. When Harry and Janice return to Pennsylvania, Harry at first seems to feel a new appreciation for life, noticing the flowering pear trees for the first time. But he's still sleeping with his old mistress, even as she nears death, and he's still bullying, brutish father to his totally screwed up son (Nelson has acquired an expensive cocaine habit that threatens the future of the dealership, and his wife and two children are drifting away from him). True to form, when Rabbit's libido once again gets him trouble, he runs. And Janice, busy with a new career and fed up with her philandering husband, doesn't even follow.

So why bother reading about this misogynistic, self-absorbed coot? Because in Updike's hands he's so much more than that. Angstrom has always seemed to represent the path not chosen for Updike, his contemporary who stayed behind in small town Pennsylvania instead of leaving for Harvard and a life of accomplishment. His prose beautifully expresses his nostalgia for this piece of American life, and his sympathy for his bumbling, stumbl
ing hero.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tea Party

For a book to be on the NY Times Paperback Bestseller list for 133 weeks (and counting), it must have very broad appeal. So I was surprised that this book wasn’t included on our blog until I reflected that it had been popular for long before we started the blog in February 2008. Our other blog contributors must have already read it but I was late to the Tea party: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This book is a publishing phenomenon. Not only are there the regular hardback and paperback editions, there are also the editions for 4 – 8 year olds, Listen to the Wind, and for ages 8 and up, Three Cups of Tea The Young Reader’s Edition which are also on their respective bestseller lists. All this success is well-deserved.

Mortensen’s life has been unusual from the beginning. Although he was born in the US, he spent the first 15 years of his life with his missionary parents in Tanzania. Living in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro stimulated his passion for mountain climbing. To honor his deceased sister he attempted to climb K2…but failed in his attempt because he rescued another climber. From that failure has come unimagined success. In gratitude to the villagers in this remote area of Pakistan who took him in and nursed him back to health, he promised to return and build a school. Fulfilling that promise took heroic effort and determination and is the substance of this book. Part of the story will have special appeal to those readers in the San Francisco Bay Area as this is where Mortenson started his fund-raising campaign. How hard he had to work to raise just a few thousand dollars when he started.

Now there are more than 77 schools, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As we read or hear every day of the worsening situations in both of those countries, we can only wonder how these schools are affected. The Taliban quickly recognized the threats that these schools posed and spent large amounts of money to surround them with madrassas.

Mortenson is generous in his praise and appreciation of the support he receives from his wife. Their romance is a heart-warming story. It would take a special person to bear with his prolonged absences and single-mindedness. Their home with their two children and the headquarters of his Central Asia Institute are now in Montana.

To learn more about their ongoing efforts to promote education and literacy, especially for girls, visit their website. The sequel Stones into Schools promises to continue his story when it is released in December 2009.