Saturday, September 23, 2017

House of Leaves

House of Leaves
by Mark Danielewski

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a pretty long book but flows nicely.  Kudos to an author who brings in 3-4 storylines using unusual methods to separate them: varied font sizes, mixing in art, playing with spacing on the page, and placing words on different parts of a page.  The technique makes it easier for the reader to know which storyline he/she is entering.  It is a book about a book/movie/experience and brings the reader in through its brief thirteen-page introduction, describing how Johnny Truant finds the work that recently deceased “Zampano”, a ‘mystery man’, leaves behind.  Truant, the protagonist, is searching for the Navidson Record, the work that shares the story of a family by the same name, living in a haunted house in Virginia where disappearance and death rule the day!  Truant’s own life, his friendships, his early childhood abuse, sexual exploits, drug and alcohol addictions, and the story of his parent’s abandonment play large roles in his own exploration of the Navidson Record.  The writing is raw, great style, and the author draws the reader’s interest in the mysteries that the characters are all trying to solve.  The author also adds another level of intrigue by adding celebrity feedback on the Navidson Record (Stephen King, Edward Albee, and key political leaders) and pictures of artifacts from the house, drawings of movements in the house, and sketches of portraits.  This is a full-package book with multiple stories and innovative structures.  I never lost interest – in fact, I started the book in the morning and finished it by evening!  Not bad for a 600+ book!  I would recommend this one for those comfortable with non-linear storylines and a new approach to a novel.   The appendices also provide a perspective that fills in the rest of the story on Johnny’s childhood.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nobody

Nobody
by Marc Lamont Hill

Marc Lamont Hill’s book Nobody captures the most recent tragedies from Ferguson to Flint, from Eric Garner to Trayvon Martin, and the long list continues.  Lamont Hill not only provides the historical context of each case, but he also looks deep into the decades of how these issues have recently been catapulted into our society today.  White aggression, decades of poverty, laws that harm the poor and those who have limited resources to education - these are just some of the concerns discussed.  His research is spot-on with a long section of notes that support all of his points.  This is an essential read for anyone who questions why America is divided racially.  It is not a geographical issue within the US, i.e., South or North, but it permeates all areas of our country.  It is a hard book to read because of the realities of our society.  Every time one thinks that the killings can’t be more atrocious, the next one happens.  Young black boys carrying skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea or a man who is choked by the police screaming “I can’t breathe”…what is this world coming to?  When we can’t see the individual, when we are blinded by skin color?  We need to move from dialogue to action.  If this book doesn’t move you, I’m not sure anything will!  Thanks for the recommendation.  A compelling call to action with in-depth reasons why…    

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Intelligent Investor

The Intelligent Investor
by Benjamin Graham

Surprising that an RA would have enjoyed a dated finance book – The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham – albeit a seminal read in the industry at that time (late 1970s).  (Note that the author died in the late 1970s and the book had a latest edition in 2015 with input from Warren Buffett, which was not the version suggested.)  The book provided historical perspectives from the early days of the Stock Market (late 1890s) through the 1970s.  I’m not sure if the suggestions I read would be applicable now that mergers and acquisitions have come so far (in addition to international trade and technology), but certainly information helpful to understanding how we got to where we are today.  One suggestion that few would follow today is investing in CDs from local banks, which paid double digit interest in the late 1970s (today closer to 0.1% or lower).   The book was lauded for its value on the topic of investing.  Chapters include: the investor vs. inflation; how to think about your portfolio; the investor and market fluctuations; the investor and their advisors; and a series of case studies using top industry mergers from the era.  For business students, a great historical view on how to invest, who to best include as advisors, and a way to diversify investments.  A yawn for anyone not inclined to invest.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Overachievers

The Overachievers
by Alexandra Robbins

A must read for anyone who has a high school student preparing for the college search process in The Overachievers, by Alexandra Robbins.  Robbins goes back to her alma mater, Walt Whitman High School, in the prestigious town of Bethesda, Maryland, to follow juniors, seniors and one alum who headed to Harvard for college.  Robbins chooses a cross section of students – the nerds, athletes, social-conscious, the tease, and the popular kids.  The chapters follow the timeline of the academic year over the course of sixteen months, introducing the various issues that students face in the college search process.  Of all the stories, I appreciate Robbins’ inclusion of “APFrank”, the student who had just graduated from Walt Whitman, was moving on to Harvard and had a younger brother attending the same high school.  Robbins discusses the role of hired consultants to assist with the college process, the pressures of getting accepted to the “Ivy” institutions, the challenges of SAT prep, the peer pressure involved in alcohol consumption, finding a date for the prom, balancing academics and extra-curricular activities, and so much more.   Robbins concludes the book with where each of the students got accepted and how they made their decisions – well, decisions were made for some students who didn’t get into Stanford, Yale and Princeton.  Robbins’ best contribution is her suggestions to high schools:
Delay schools start times (start later, let kids sleep more); drop class rank (stop the competition!); de-emphasize testing; provide less competitive alternatives; assign and enforce coordinated departmental project and test days; increase awareness of self-harming behaviors; limit AP classes (yes!); and reinstitute recess time (too many overachievers take classes during lunch)
Robbins also suggests that colleges should:
Boycott the rankings; scrap the SAT; eliminate early decision; prioritize mental health concerns: send a message of what is important (well-rounded students!).
She has advice for high school counselors:
Focus on the student, not on the schools
And what should parents do?
Limit young childrens’ activities; get a life; schedule family time; place character above performance
And finally, what should students do with the support of their parents:
Stop the guilt; adjust the superstar mentality; carve an individual path; ignore the peanut gallery and accept that name doesn’t reflect ability; pare down activities, take a year off after high school; try an unrewarding activity; reclaim summer; accept that admissions aren’t personal; take charge

As you can see, a great list.  Pick up the book and enjoy reading what it is we should be doing for our high school students.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Gloria

Gloria
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Every year, there is at least one Tisch student who shares with me a play as their favorite book.  Today’s read was Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ top-rated play Gloria.  The character, Gloria, is a fifteen-plus-year veteran at the mid-town Manhattan magazine publication office.  Many of the young staff leave this office to go on to outstanding careers in the field.  Gloria is viewed as an awkward peer who is always trying to connect with her colleagues.  The play begins the evening after Gloria hosts a party at her home that only one staffer attends.   In the office, all other staffers make fun of Dean, the sole member who attended.  He describes how uncomfortable he felt being there.  The first act focuses on everyone’s crass comments regarding Gloria and how strange she is as a person.  The act ends with Gloria walking into the office & shooting all of her colleagues!  The rest of the play discusses how the owners of the magazine and those who survived the killings tried to produce books, screenplays, and TV pilots about Gloria’s killing of her office mates.  There are some good soliloquies and character development, but the story for me is weak, reminding me of a BRAVO or WE Network movie.  Maybe seeing it on stage might change my opinion, but I doubt it.  The subject matter is overplayed in media outlets and the reader never really gets to know Gloria - she only comes in the End of Act 1 to shoot her peers.  It does have good reviews, so maybe I am being too harsh.  Not the best read to pick-up after a number of weeks under the weather.  Hope the next one will be better. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

In the Country

In the Country
by Mia Alvar

Yet another book focused on a non-American culture, which continues to reflect the composition of the RA staff at NYU.  This book, In the Country, by Mia Alvar, is a collection of short stories which discuss the social issues that arose around the time of government turmoil in the mid-1970s through late 1980s in the Philippines.  Each story reveals different aspects of the culture: political issues, poverty, hardships on women, and government intervention in people’s daily lives.  My favorite aspect of the stories is that, in each one, there is a pivotal “plot twist” that comes as a surprise to the reader.  One of my favorites was The Virgin of Monte Ramon.  In the story, a little boy is born with no feet and lives in his wheelchair, told by his mother that he inherited the deformity from his grandfather who was injured in the army and died a hero with the same physical condition.  For years, the boy and his mother received financial support from many men in town, who appeared to have a “relationship” with his mother.  One man in particular, Dr. Delacruz, visited frequently to provide food, clothes and other amenities.  The boy was picked on by classmates because of his condition and the fact his mother was a recipient of numerous “gifts” from mature men. This left him to be ridiculed as the son of a whore. The twist to the story is that Dr. Delacruz is actually the boy’s biological father….Alvar is a young author on the rise.  Her ability to capture the realities of her culture and the horrors that occurred during the dictatorship of the country illustrate the atrocities on so many levels.  This is a book worth picking up!

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo

Went home to clean the apartment and picked up one of the RA Favorite books: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.  This ‘self-help’ book provides the reader with the steps to getting your house in order, which, in turn, will get your life in order as well.  The author explains why people have such a hard time keeping the home organized, suggesting that a little-by-little approach NEVER works.  You need to go full-out to accomplish the task, and the author extends this process to cleaning all aspects of your life (your relationships, your career, your priorities, etc.).  Some helpful hints include: NO storage units; sort by category, not by location; make tidying a special event, not a daily chore; and discard all things you need to get rid of before organizing.  She suggests keeping family away from this process as they usually serve as enablers for a messy life!  Here is the order in which to organize:
1.)    Clothing!  With a sub-order as follows:
a.       Tops (shirts, sweaters)
b.       Bottoms (pants, etc.)
c.       Clothes to be hung
d.       Socks
e.       Underwear
f.        Bags
g.       Accessories
h.       Shoes
2.)    Loungewear
3.)    Books (unread books means you’ll never read it!)
4.)    Sorting papers (get rid of old checkbooks and throw away those old electrical appliance manuals)
5.)    Miscellaneous items

Designate a place for each one.  And once you have this all taken care of, then you will be doing the daily work/maintenance!  She then shares how the ‘magic’ of a new life will appear.  Sound easy?  We will see how well the work I did last night based on the book turns out.  Pretty common-sense ideas done in a fairly quick read, one hour tops!  Excellent reading opportunity when waiting at the DMV…

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cereus Blooms at Night

Cereus Blooms at Night
by Shani Mootoo


Mystery, intrigue, rape, desperation, hidden secrets….. this book has it and is written in beautiful prose.  The book, Cereus Blooms at Night, by Shani Mootoo, begins with the end and the author brings us to the sordid past – it reminds me of the technique used in Fried Green Tomatoes. Mala Ramchandin, viewed as a crazy elderly woman, is brought to a nursing home by the local authorities after she is found innocent of a murder in her own home.  What we don’t know is what actually happened.  The story-teller, Tyler, is a recently hired nurse at the paradise Alms House.  He is given no real work projects, but, when Mala arrives, he has the opportunity to be her private nurse.  The rest of the book gives Mala’s history and how the dead body ended in her home.  Mala was raised by her abusive father (Chandin) after her mother (Sarah) ran off with her friend and lover (Lavina), who happened to be the woman her father loved.  When her mother escaped the home, she tried taking her two daughters, but they were stopped when her father returned home from work early that day.  Chandin was raised by Lavina’s parents, and grew up as her brother.  The story unfolds with great detail and in a chronological flow, piece by piece.  Mala’s love interest as a young girl is also revealed and the role he plays in all that has unfolded. The mystery is revealed as to whom the dead body is and how it got there.  Love, friendship, homosexuality, incest, rape and guilt are all entwined in the story.  It’s a relatively quick read and also shows that people are complicated as is jealousy.  Add in the annual bloom of the cereus plant and you have a “tight” story that fits very nicely together.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Starcrossed

Starcrossed
by Josephine Angelini

Creativity in using the past to tell a story is pretty impressive, especially a story using historical characters from Greek mythology.  You have entered the world of Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini and the story of Helen (yes, based on Helen of Troy). She is a seventeen-year-old high school senior who wants to be average but has the skills and smarts to be above average.  She lives with her father, after her mother died when she was an infant.  The story is set on the beautiful island of Nantucket, where my wife and I had our honeymoon.  Helen has some strange dreams and later has a sudden hallucination of two young girls trying to strangle a classmate.  She goes into action to try and save him, but, in reality, there are no girls there and, instead, Helen attacks her classmate, Lucas, who has just moved into town.  Helen isn’t having hallucinations, as she later learns.  She has entered the world of the ancient ‘reincarnated’ Greek Gods.  Her journey will include falling in love with Lucas, who is unable to share his emotions with her because he thinks he is in her family lineage, discovering who she really is, and that her mother isn’t really dead!  Throw in the arrival of the furies and the warring family factions, the dividing family in Greek times and you have a sinister fantasy novel.  Downsides to this: it’s a trilogy (ugh!), you need to know your Greek Gods, the slow pace of ensuring they get the Greek Gods all in, and it's a “like it if you know the background” story – if you don't, this may not fit the bill.  Still, it is a well-written and fun read.  It’s one of the “adult-book type” reads.  Good for a rainy day in the summer.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Lies of Locke Lamora


The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch

I’m rarely a fan of serial books, so you can probably tell I won’t give this a full 5-star rating.  Combine that with a lengthy storyline with two simultaneous narratives and you have a “ho-hum” from me.  So goes the fantasy tale The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.  Written in 2006, Lynch presents a “Robin Hood”-type story with robbers trying to do some good for themselves and their clan, but also a repeated story of disguise, escape, and violence.  The main story focuses on Locke and his associates’ fight with the ‘Grey King’ for leadership of the underground world while the secondary story provides context through detailing the history of the town Camorr and the gang called the “Gentleman Bastards”.  The author’s approach in writing this way kept me confused at times and losing interest at others.  I will say there were moments of action that really enlivened the plot, especially the closing sequence.  But then I realized there is a part two, three, etc.  If you like fantasy books, you may enjoy this one – unfortunately, I did not.