Friday, July 29, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale

A great read today, finishing The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  It was one of those gems that you get every once in a while!  Before I conclude, yes add this to your list!  A mystery tale with some classic twists as you come to the end.  Setterfield’s book is a great one, connecting two characters with some similarities to work together on the elder character’s final story.  Vida Winter is a famous author who hires Margaret Lea to write her biography before she dies.  Margaret is the daughter of a bookseller and as the story unfolds about Ms. Winter’s life, we learn about Margaret’s life.  Ms. Winter’s history was never chronicled and as such she wishes for it to be completed as her last, the true past, the one she has withheld for years.  Margaret was hired by Vida based on the only other biography she wrote.  Margaret will only take the job if Vida tells the truth, and Margaret can find proof that is the truth.  What Margaret finds is more than that…. She finds family members from Vida’s past that didn’t know they were connected.  The book is so much more than the untold story of Vida, but also the coming to terms, through witnessing Vida’s history, of her own life and the tragic death of her twin sister when she was born.  The story of The Thirteenth Tale comes from the fact that Winter wrote a book called "The Thirteenth Tale," but the volume only contained twelve stories in it, this obviously being the last to be filled in the book.  Margaret learns the tragic story of the Angelfield household, where Vida grew up and even visits the burnt-out home that still stands on the grounds.  To give you more information than this would probably give too much away, though I will say that being a twin is also a part of the Angelfield secret, and much more.  There are few “ageless” tales like this one, ie when did it occur?  It could be today or years ago, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters are the brilliant characters and story line that Setterfield shares.  I just hope it doesn’t become a movie like so many other great books.  This one will be a “great read” as the years progress.  A relatively quick read, well I couldn’t put it down… pick it up and I think you’ll find the same thing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sputnik Sweetheart

A book written by one of my newer favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, as I have read 5 of his through this RA Favorite initiative!  Murakami has a style of futuristic/psychological thriller of sorts and this is present in Sputnik Sweetheart.  The narrator, K., tells of his relationship with Sumire, a woman he met while in college who shared the love of reading.  The two are two parts of a very strange triangle which is completed through the 39-year-old Miu, a woman Sumire met at a wedding.  Much of this story is told through the voice of the three characters reflection of their dark past.  Sumire has never been able to cope with the loss of her mother and while she is deeply connected to K., she has no interest in a sexual relationship with her “best friend.”  K. is deeply in love with Sumire, yet he needs to have his needs met through “one nighters” with other women.  Finally, Sumire finds her love… Miu, a married woman.  Is Miu replacing Sumire’s need for a mother figure?  Sumire often calls K. in the middle of the night to share her feelings or other events happening in her life.  Mui hires Sumire to be her assistant, and then takes her to Greece for a relaxing vacation.  But after Sumire learns a deep dark secret about Miu, Sumire disappears from the island!  Miu, who has learned all about K. from Sumire, requests that he come to Greece to assist in the search.  This story is all about love, sexuality, missed connections, and identifying the “self.”  In only the manner Murakami creates characters, this story has it all.  Will K. ever find love? Will Miu forgive herself for nixing Sumire’s advances? How will K.’s mistress react to his rebuffing?  There are so many levels mixed in Murakami’s mysticism that reflects the complicated nature of our lives and relationships.  I grow to love his novels the more I read them.  Probably one of the top authors in society today!  Worth a read if you like truly character driven books rather than great stories, though this one isn’t bad….  I hear his next book is coming out in 2012!  

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Am Charlotte Simmons

Fun to read a contemporary book about the work I do… life in colleges in the US.  Not always good by the way.  In this book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe (author of another RA Favorite Book – Bonfires of the Vanities) does his homework through his journey of the top colleges/universities across the country.  While this is a really long book (I actually listened to 32+ hours!), it really kept me engaged throughout.  The story begins with high school valedictorian Charlotte Simmons delivering her speech to those assembled for the ceremony.  We learn that Charlotte, from Sparta, NC, follows the lead of her parents' humble Christian upbringing and has stayed away from the alcohol, sex, and rock and roll, focusing strictly on her academics.  This leads to receiving a full-ride to the fictional “elite” Dupont University, which is more elite than Harvard, Stanford, and Yale!  Now the fun begins! (More behind the jump).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Undiscovered Self

The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung, written in the mid-1950s during the time of the Cold War, is a fitting read for us today.  Struggling with global warming, warring countries, terrorism, and poverty … has anything really changed?  Swap out our issues with Jung’s concerns… communism, cold war (countries not speaking to one another), and the threat of nuclear war… hmm, history just keeps on repeating, huh?  Propaganda and manipulation of the individual by the “state” and demoralizing of society work against us as a community.  We shouldn’t rely so heavily on “science,” we need to remember the humanness of the individual, which makes up our society.  There are always “exceptions to the rules,” that’s what makes our world what it is. He challenges us to think about understanding the individual self, and not humanity as a whole (YES! Coming from a psychiatrist – well done!).  What is inside the psyche of an individual is complicated and as Jung states, “an insoluble puzzle” – spend some time with my kids and you will agree (Yes, I love them, but boy I don’t get them sometimes…)! Jung’s disagreement with Freud on the unconscious self is captured in the series of articles in the book.  A very well written, though pretty heavy, reading, well organized into a series of seven discrete articles: The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society; Religion as the Counterbalance to Mass-Mindedness; The Position of the West on the Question of Religion; The Individual’s Understanding of Himself; The Philosophical Approach to Life; Self-Knowledge; and The Meaning of Self Knowledge.  To get an idea on Jung’s thoughts on the West and Religion, “The West has unfortunately not yet awakened to the fact that our appeal to idealism and reason and other desirable virtues, delivered with so much enthusiasm, is mere sound and fury.”   He argues that the West is “all over the place” and not able to have influence in the political world... hmmm interesting thought, especially with separation of church and state in the US.  His last section, on the meaning of self-knowledge, hits home for me in that he asks how does the individual find happiness and contentment? Such a hard thing for an individual in this challenging time we live in with instant gratification, lack of commitment, stress, and all those other external factors how does one focus on being the best one can be for themselves?  Living the life we are supposed to live (whatever “supposed to” means?).  It would be impossible for me to scratch the surface of the depth of issues Jung presents in a paragraph or two, better if I had posed a series of questions, well maybe? But I will leave that for those who want to post on the blog.  Very philosophical and creates a series of questions for the reader to think about in understanding who “I am” and how do I live my life…  A great read to do in a book club, though I doubt many book clubs want to grapple with these issues without the pretense of characters, etc.  In a mood to think?  Pick up this very short series of seven articles and let me know how it goes.   

Friday, July 22, 2011

Black Boy

A wonderful story by Richard Wright that explores the author’s own life and challenges growing up as a black male in the southern states of the US.  In Black Boy, Wright presents two aspects of his life, his early days growing up in the South and his more mature days in the North (Chicago).  A person who has never experienced discrimination, especially white supremacy against black communities, Wright provides a chilling real-life heart-felt tale of fear, pain, and anguish.  Wright and his brother grow-up in Mississippi in the first decade of the 1900s, a tumultuous time of race relations prior to World War I.  Wright and his brother face his father’s decision to leave his mother and that begins a long series of moving from one relative to another.  Wright, very different from other children his age, takes EVERYTHING literally and often gets himself into trouble for misperceiving things people say to him and actions he takes.  He burns his home down, kills his parents' cat, loses jobs, ends relationships, and gets involved in the communist movement all through taken things not as they were intended by others.  Wright, from a very early age, has a talent for writing, although he rarely has a continuous educational experience in his life based on the constant movement of his family.  Wright always stays connected to his mother, though she becomes ill at a very young age.  Wright finds jobs at a very young age, always intended to serve as monetary support for his mother.  Wright is one of these characters who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There are some funny parts of the tale, love the part when he finds solace in a boarding house only to find out the owner’s daughter falls in love with him though they have only known each other for less than 24 hours.  Wright, always on the precipice of despair (no food, shelter), finds a way out.  His writing skills come in handy and leads him to a better place.  The underlying “through-line” in this story is clearly the role education, reading, and storytelling can play, though racism never truly allows Wright to succeed at the same level as his white counterparts.  While the first section focuses on life in the South, the second half (life in the North) isn’t as engaging to me.  Wright gets heavily involved with the communist movement in the US immediately following World War I (with lack of money, food and jobs for the community).  Wright’s struggles with the ideology conflicting with his need to follow his inner-voice lead to a final conflict.  Black Boy is a classic read that gives an inside view to Southern Black America.  Great book!  Provides a perspective that so much of our mainstream history books always leave out!  Add this to the list.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Great Expectations

One of the longer books that I have on the RA Favorite Book list was written by Charles Dickens, a classic author. The book, Great Expectations,is the quintessential tale of the life of a young boy, Pip, that has everything and has a life altering experience which leads to an adventure of a lifetime.  The tale, which is set in the early 1810s, begins with a young six year old visiting his dead parents cemetery plots and is confronted by an escaped convict.  The convict forces Pip to steal some things from his aunt’s home to assist him during his travels.  Pip’s sister, the evil “step-mother” type character, is constantly berating Pip for not living up to her expectations.  Luckily for Pip, her husband, Joe, is the nice guy who supports him as much as he can.  After Pip’s helping effort to the convict, he sits at the table with family and guests on Christmas Day for the big dinner, unfortunately the dessert, which Pip gave to the convict, is ready to be served when the local sheriff comes for help from Joe, a blacksmith, with a tool once they capture the escaped convict.  Later that evening they do capture the convict, who confesses to all that Pip was not responsible for stealing things from the aunt’s home and that he did so.  By doing so, the convict begins to create his connection to Pip, which comes back later to explain Pip’s changing expectations for his life.  Rarely do orphans make it big, but this is the tale where the “expectations” for a person based on their “lot in life” doesn’t always follow the pattern they are “supposed to follow.”  Pip falls in love with Estella Havisham, the adopted orphan of Mrs. Havisham, a crusty old woman who has not left her home since she was scorned by a lover many years earlier.  Pip is contacted by a lawyer informing him that he has received a significant inheritance, though the lawyer can’t let him know who the person who left him the money is.  Pip lives the good life, always thinking that Mrs. Havisham was the giver.  Pip finds challenges in love (losing Estella) and finally losing his money.  He also learns who really provided him the inheritance; it wasn’t Mrs. Havisham, whom he has an incredibly bad interaction (which leads to her demise).  Pip’s expectations are never realized as he loses most everything of value, but he gains something more valuable than riches.  While this is a very LONG tale, Dickens is quite the writer of prose.  The story keeps the reader engaged and wondering what’s next for Pip.  Will he and Estella ever really be together?  When her husband learns of her frugal beginnings and adoption, she too falls from grace and is left alone.  Ahh, so Pip gets a second chance!  What will happen?  You will need a good deal of time to get through this long book, but a good read nonetheless!  Dickens is a must read for the avid reader.  In the same league as Melville, Steinbeck, and Hemingway!  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Breath, Eyes, Memory

It is the second book I have read by Edwidge Danticat, this one is Breath, Eyes, Memory.  The story of Sophie Caco, a twelve year old Haitian who lives with her aunt (Atie) after her mother left for the US, is broken into four segments.  The first presents the story of Sophie’s  days with her aunt Atie, the second phase outlines the experience of going to America, the third her trip back to Haiti with her mother, and the fourth the separation and conclusion to the relationship between Sophie and her mother. The reader learns firsthand of the loving relationship between Sophie and her illiterate aunt, which comes to an end when Sophie’s mother sends an airline ticket for Sophie to finally join her in the US.  Sophie reunites with her mother and learns the horrific story of how she was conceived, through stranger rape.  The rape and the Haitian tradition of mother’s “testing” their daughters to ensure the daughter is pure for future suitors lead to Sophie’s mother’s nightmares and mental health issues.  Women have special challenges growing up in a culture that is male dominated, poor, and uneducated.  Sophie’s mother never is able to cope with the tragedies that she faced in Haiti which are repeated in some ways with Sophie upon her 18th birthday and feelings towards an older neighbor, Joseph, whom she finally marries.  Sophie’s mother never can escape her past even with the help of her lover Marc, whom she tries to open herself up to.  All of the female characters have similar scars and the cycle does not seem to end.  I was really shocked by the ending of this book, which bothered me to the core.   It appears on many levels that Sophie’s world will change as will her mother’s fate, but….. this is not a happy story but does present a story that needs to be told.  One can only hope that Sophie can break the chains that imprison women in the Haitian society.  There is much work to be done for sure.  Danticat once again provides a perspective that needs to be shared globally.  Tough read, but nice and short.  Worth adding to your list.  Falls in the series of books from other third world countries that women are seen as objects.  Sad.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Little Bee

An interesting best-selling tale by Christopher Cleave called Little Bee, which is the name of the lead character of the book.  The author uses the well-used technique of alternating the voice (perspective) between Little Bee and Sarah (the English woman) whose paths cross during a trip to Nigeria for a vacation that Sarah and her husband go on to bring their marriage back together.  Sarah and Andrew would never know how that fateful trip would change so much in their lives.  Sarah and her four year old son, Charlie, are attending Andrew’s funeral a few days after Little Bee arrives in London.  We learn as the story progresses that Little Bee and Sarah met in Nigeria during the trip when Little Bee was to be killed but has her life saved when Sarah offers her middle finger to be cut off in exchange for Little Bee’s life.  Little Bee’s sister is not as lucky as Andrew, a journalist, refuses to have his finger cut off.  This decision haunts Andrew and when Little Bee contacts him for refuge to London, something snaps in London. This is a tale of guilt, missed opportunities, and running away from one’s past.  Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria has escaped from the country and her demise, but learns she is still captive to the whims of society and is finally extricated to her homeland.  Sarah’s decision to have an extra-marital affair over many years leads to the trip and her inability to truly be the person she wants to be.  She sees Little Bee as the opportunity to "do the right thing."  Charlie, aka Batman (a wonderful character who dresses like a superhero – Batman) is the love child who just can’t seem to do what kids are incapable of doing, keep parents who aren’t in love together.  One of the funny moments was the interrupted love scene when Batman enters with a present… all parents have a story similar, I’m sure.  What a beautiful story of intrigue, holding on to something that needs to be let go, depression caused by regret and guilt, and fighting against the evil authority.  A surprise ending that is just calling for part 2… hmmm, what do you say Mr. Cleve?  Add this one to the list.  A quick listen and well worth it.  Well written book.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Anansi Boys

Another wacky tale which has supernatural characteristics in it, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.  The last Gaiman book I read I didn’t like at all, but this one was pretty entertaining.  It's the story of Fat Charlie (who is not actually fat) who after learning of his father’s death meets the evil brother he never knew that he had.  Fat Charlie, estranged from his father, is engaged to Rosie but learns right before the wedding his father has died and Charlie needs to go to the US (New Orleans – which yes, I am here now- weird huh?) to finalize the proceedings around his father’s will.  His father dies while singing at a karoke bar trying to flirt with a younger woman - did I say there were really funny parts in this book? – there are!  When in New Orleans, Charlie learns he has a brother, and that his father was an incarnation of the West African spider god, Anansi, hence his name.  Luckily Charlie didn’t get the evil side, but his brother “Spider” did!  Charlie is told by the father’s neighbors about how he might meet up with Spider, unfortunately he finds him and now his life is turned upside down!  Spider steals his fiancee, gets him indicted for stealing from his place of employment, gets arrested, yet he does get revenge of sorts… he goes to the place where the spirits are located and makes a deal with the spirits to give of his blood line in exchange for getting rid of Spider.  The spirits get the “birds,” almost like a Hitchcock movie moment, to capture Spider.  More mayhem continues through in the sub-plot of Charlie’s evil boss who killed someone and left their body in a secret passageway in his office, which Charlie helps uncover.  You have a well-intertwined and exciting story.  Nothing like a good brother vs. evil brother story line, but this one is good, and funny!  So how does it end?  Well, you’ll have to read it to find out, but just know good brother doesn’t get his “main squeeze” back but he ends up ok in the end.  Again, a really good book, funny and full of intrigue and magical moments!  Neat how it included New Orleans while I was there traveling for the ACUHO-I conference.  Yes, we did do the ghost story trips in the most haunted city in the US.   

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Skinny Legs and All

A complete departure from The JungleSkinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins tells the wacky tale of newlyweds, Ellen Cherry Charles and Boomer Petway, a seemingly mismatched couple – she's an artist and Boomer's a redneck from the Midwest.  They are driving across the country, much to the chagrin of Ellen’s parents who despise the match of the two, and land in NYC!  Love the stories that give perspectives of NYC landscapes like 1st Avenue near the UN (where much of the action takes place) and the Lower East Side.  The two go off on a picnic and in the midst of sexual activity of some sort (use your imagination) they leave behind a dirty sock, can of beans, spoon, conch shell, and other assorted items which serves as a subplot in that the items are trying to get to Israel!  Petway and Ellen split soon after their sexual exploits gets to be too much as Ellen feels she wants to be an artist with limited support from Boomer (who later becomes a world class artist in Israel), you getting the idea how wacky this all is?  Oh yeah, how about fundamentalist preacher Buddy Winkler who tries and get his own claim to fame, which causes his demise at the end of this thriller!  Ellen, after her split from Boomer, is employed at a Middle Eastern restaurant across from the UN, owned by Spike Cohen and Roland Abu Hadee (a Jew and an Arab), underlying the current happenings with the Middle East conflict.  And lastly the conflicted couple comes together after the belly-dancer Salome loses her last of seven veils!  This is a funny, non-linear, and at times, unconnected series of moments with a group of characters brought together through Ellen and Boomer’s travels.  I have never read a Robbins story before but if this is any indication of his writing, I imagine the other reads are pretty light-hearted and nonsensical.   If you are looking for something like a Seinfeld’esque tale, this book is it.  Light reading, which was good for a plane ride!  

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Jungle

The challenging life of an immigrant is portrayed in this classic, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.  The story takes place in the Midwest region of America, Chicago to be exact, in the beginning of the twentieth century and focuses on life in the meat-packing industry.  The particular “ethnic group” at the bottom of the pecking order is the Lithuanians and the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, seemingly endures every possible embarrassment and loss a person could ever face.  When I say that there are few characters in the history of literature (not including the Bible) who endure more hardship in one story, Jurgis is it!  It is a story in which Jurgis seems to be turning the corner, and then BOOM, it all goes for naught.  Jurgis is an amazingly hard working guy who does all that he can for his family working hard through the corruption that is all around him in the meat-packing industry and the onset of the union movement.  Everything that was/is wrong with the American dream and the preying on the newly arrived immigrant occurs, a great example: buying a house (that is poorly constructed) and not reading the fine print that mentions the 10% interest rate on top of the monthly mortgage (even after lawyers are hired to advise them!), so Jurgis loses the house!  The family struggles to make ends meet OFTEN and faces his biggest challenge when the family is starving and he learns his wife (Ona) was offering “services” to his boss to bring in money for food.  Jurgis is jailed after attacking his boss, Ona eventually dies during child-birth, and almost all other family members die.  Depressed yet?  Sinclair’s work brilliantly portrays the ills of society.  The last part of the book is almost an advertisement for a socialist approach where Jurgis meets a local union advocate who wants to spread the wealth evenly.  Great read for anyone who wants to learn how immigrants often feel when they enter our homeland.  Add to your list, a classic for high school students.    

Monday, July 4, 2011

Invisible Monsters

Happy Independence Day all!  Today we drove back from PA and so I was able to finish listening to Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk.  The story begins with the narrator, Sharon McFarland, informing that this is not a linear story; thank goodness for that, otherwise I would have been lost.  Sharon, the protagonist is a disfigured woman (we don’t know how it happened until the end), who is asked to tell the story of Brandy Alexander, who is shot at the very beginning by her friend Evie Cottrell at her wedding.  Evie is Sharon’s best friend, a fellow model, who has an affair with Sharon’s fiancĂ©e, Manus Kelly.  We learn that Sharon meets Brandy Alexander when she is rushed to the hospital after driving and being shot in the face and they become fast friends.  So we already learn in the first few chapters that Brandy is shot bleeding by Evie on her wedding day, the narrator was shot in the face, and that her best friend is a “hand model”… wacky enough for you?  It was for me.  Wait until you discover the Rhea sisters, the three drag queen sisters, the hidden identity of Brandy Alexander and Evie Cottrell, and the real reason Sharon is shot in the face and you are in for a weird, funny read.  Sharon’s family background is examined, growing up in a pretty conservative farm family where her brother allegedly died after being disfigured by an exploding can of hair spray that Sharon left in the garbage can and then thought to have died from AIDS.  One of the funniest chapters in the entire book is the Christmas present unwrapping between Sharon and her parents where she unwraps all of her presents from her stocking, tens of condom packets so that Sharon doesn’t contract sexually transmitted diseases.  Palahniuk’s humor is right on target and illustrates the oddities in family structures.   He dares to be the most “non PC” with his disregard for models and reveling in the age of sexual identity, lots of transgendered characters in this one.  I can see why this book wasn’t initially picked up by a publisher at first as it is over the top, truly!  If you are into a “non-traditional” book, add this one to the list.  This is certainly not a book for everyone.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In Search of Lost Time

One of the longest books in history, and I reveal to all here I only read volume 1 of 6, is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff and Kilmartin.  Volume one is “Swann’s Way” and after finishing volume one I can say I feel like I have read the entire book, but in reality I know I haven’t.  This was a very painful read... ok, maybe I am not the most intellectually developed person, or guy who is moved by poetically gifted language, but this was a very slow moving read, one with painfully slow thought process and story development.  To begin a story with about how one goes to bed early and then goes on to deepen his thinking about his growing up in a country home in Combray, all of this while his family is hosting a family guest, Charles Swann.  Because of the visit, he is deprived of his mother’s good night kiss!  Really??? Yes. This is a series of “droning” stream of consciousness writing.  How did he remember the dessert they were eating that evening?  The next section turns to follow the life of Charles Swann, well really the on-again, off-again feelings between him and the woman he feels something towards, Odette de Crecy, but between jealousy and uncertainty of his own feelings, her changing looks/weight/ etc., it is an off-on relationship.  The depth at which the author has gone into detail of the human heart, the thinking that goes on in our moment to moment thoughts, the connection between our thoughts, and the connections that are connected to them is amazing.  I have heard that authors were paid by the word when writing their manuscripts at the time Proust was writing.  I would imagine that Proust must have made a fortune if that was the case here.  The first volume contained a quality of writing (even in the translated version) of great prose, just not a lot of action for someone like me who likes to be kept on my toes with a story of some sort.  I would imagine most French Literature majors love this one.  Really reflects the times and the depth of the human condition in relation to love, jealousy, and being torn by life’s everyday challenges.  It’s just not my kind of read.  I give anyone who read the entire 6 volumes and enjoyed it major KUDOS!  Drop a note, or post to the blog your thoughts on volumes 2-6 on what I missed!