Saturday, June 30, 2012

Seabiscuit: An American Legend

Historical books are always fun to read and learn about great events that I missed out on from long ago.  This book is no different.  In Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, the reader is brought back to the grand old days of the racing world, when it was one of the most exciting sporting events around (editorial note: I’m thinking those days are long gone, I don’t know anyone who speaks about horse racing, well maybe the Kentucky Derby, I guess).  Seabiscuit was a horse for the ages and came at the perfect time for the American people to rally around, the Great Depression era.  Imagine being named after a cracker eaten by soldiers, well, this horse was not “crumby” at all (humor – just a  little, huh?).  The horse was short and stocky and no one would have any idea of the fame that would come to him, but that changed when the right trainer (Tom Smith) was paired with the right owner (Charles Howard) and the right jockeys (primarily Red Pollard and George Woolf), especially after very little support under his first owner.  The book chronicles the early beginnings of the horse and how he rose to fame, changing the face of racing and the attention that American people paid during the time period.  Most fascinating was the hyped races, the best was the one-on-one race called the “match of the century” with War Admiral at the Pimlico Race Track in Maryland with 40,000 attendees and over 40 million listeners on the radio on November 1, 1938.  Even reading the description of the wire-to-wire finishes got my juices flowing, hoping to place my own $2 bet on the winner. Seabiscuit was not destined to be a winner based on his frame, yet through the dedication of the trainers and his thoughtful jockey who realized that Seabiscuit was a curmudgeon, motivated the horse to be a winner.  The author also painted a colorful picture of the times and the various personalities in the horse racing industry, where cheating among the jockeys and trainers to give their horse an advantage was commonplace.  The lifetime of a horse goes quickly so running in 89 races is actually pretty amazing in those days where train transportation was the best way to get to your destination coast to coast.  This was an area of expertise I had little knowledge of, so I did appreciate the perspective and story very much.  The story is as much about the rise of Seabiscuit as it is a commentary on the times.  I’d add to your list of readings.  Compelling story.    

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Phantom Tollbooth

It’s always fun to read a children’s book that reminds you of how you used your imagination!  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is one of those all-time good ones, though I had not read it, when I asked others about it, they certainly had heard of it (I guess I wasn’t a reader in my youth).  Imagination and “play on words” were the strategy of this author in getting one to learn about how to use double-entendres and English language idioms.  Milo, the lead character of this story, enters a tollbooth and finds a journey similar to Alice in Alice in Wonderland when she enters the looking glass.  This story is not as daunting as Alice’s journey, but as much fun for sure.  When Milo drives through the tollbooth in his room, he finds a dog named Tock (Tick’s brother) and Humbug (yes a bug) and together they try to bring “Rhyme and Reason” to the Kingdom of Wisdom.  Driving through Dictiononopolis and Digitopolis, Milo and his colleagues need to identify which is more important, words or numbers?  The group goes through the Doldrums, a royal banquet where the more you eat the hungrier you get, the “Which” who used to choose words, not the “witch” you and I would think of, an old lady placed in jail.  Each character is usually an opposite of what one would think and challenges Milo and his crew as they try to attain the Castle in the Air that will release the two beautiful princesses who will give Wisdom what it needs most, Rhyme and Reason.  Of course Milo accomplishes his goal and all ends in the way all good fairy tales end.  He wakes up and even with that long journey, it ended up only being an hour nap.  How I wish my dreams were as action packed as Milo’s.  This is a great book to give a nephew or niece.  Have fun with it!

Third Year Blog Anniversary!

Wow, it has been three years of blogging about RA favorite books!  I hope some of my Favorite RAs are continuing to read and gaining perspective on this thing called life.  Stay motivated and never forget where you spent some of the best years of your life... at NYU!  I wish all of you health, happiness, and the ability to be taken away in someone else's journey through reading!  Peace.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tell No One

Sometimes we read a mystery thriller book that you think you know what is around the corner, not with Tell No One by Harlan Coben.  Eight years ago Dr. David Beck, a pediatrician who works with patients in lower socio-economic communities, wakes up in a hospital room after being hit on the head with a baseball bat lying face down in water.  Fast-forward eight years when we learn his wife Elizabeth was killed during this incident.  Who did it?  Now Dr. Beck begins receiving mysterious emails from someone who is sending him cryptic notes that only his wife would know the meaning of, but how is that possible?  Elizabeth is dead? Or is she?  This thriller has twists and turns at every corner involving Elizabeth's father (the local sheriff), Beck's sister, one of his patient’s father, Elizabeth's best friend, and of course the murdered colleague of Elizabeth who died months before her "death."  I really enjoyed the retelling of the story, the intrigue, the search and rescue, and other elements of the book.  An added pleasure of the book was the setting, mostly in New Jersey, but a chase/capture/escape scene outside my office window, yes Washington Square Park!  Love scenes when they occur so vividly on the benches in the Park.  Coben does have his character dis NYU's ever growing presence in the West Village (shame on you, did you not get accepted to NYU and headed to Amherst College?), oh well.  A fast-paced read, though I really, really disliked the ending of the book (just the last 3 minutes). I won't explain, but if you read it, I think you'll agree.  Just one too many twists.  Overall outstanding read, except for the very last twist!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Child's Garden of Verses

Think about what it was like to be a kid trying to fall asleep, full of energy and thoughts from the day?  Well, settle back and read the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson in his A Child’s Garden of Verses with special illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (which leaves nothing to your imagination!).  I can remember nights where I laid in the bed and had so many things running through my head from a day in the playground, hanging in the yard, or walking my dog Spot through the neighborhood but at night stories (read by my parents) brought me to another world, a world like the one that Stephenson creates in his book of poems.  The poems are exactly the right “length” – short verse – sometimes only 12 lines, all the way up to two pages, nothing longer.  The poems center around a little boy who experiences life through a detailed and brilliant lens.  Nature (the sun, the weather outside, the moon, rivers, and gardens) are the main foci that the young boy explores in his dreams while in bed.  The boy paints beautiful pictures always cognizant of his surroundings, while in bed sleeping, or traveling throughout the world.  The poems are so uplifting and positive, great to end your day.  For example, “Happy Thought”: “The world is full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be happy as kings.”  The poem on the boy not sure what to make of his growing shadow as the day goes on is one of my favorites where a child never is alone when he has a shadow following him.  Animals also play a big part in the poems: cows, birds, and bees float in  and out of the boys consciousness and all play a role in how he lives his life.  “Time to Rise” illustrates it best:” A birdie with a yellow bill hopped upon the window sill, cocked his shining eye and said: Ain’t you ‘shamed, you sleepy-head?”  Yes, there is a time to be awake but there is also a time to sleep and allow dreams to enter your world.  What a nice read…  I guess it’s time for a rest and pick this book of poems up.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Exile and the Kingdom

Short stories are fun to read especially when they leave you hanging.  This is the case in Albert Camus’ “The Guest” written in 1957, part of Camus’ collection of stories called Exile and the KingdomThe story is set in Algeria, a northern rural area, in early Fall after the first snowfall of the season.  Two men are climbing a rocky slope while the main character, Daru (a schoolmaster), watches from his schoolhouse as they walk toward him.  Daru notices the gendarme, Balducci, walking a captive with hands tied coming toward his schoolhouse.  Balducci explains that the Arab captive needs to be brought to the other side of the county to prison for killing his own cousin.  Balducci is unable to bring the captive any further and informs Daru he must bring him to the jailer.  Daru refuses and yet is given an ultimatum by Balducci.  After Balducci leaves, Daru feeds the Arab and engages him in dialogue.  They sleep next to each other that evening and the next day Daru gives him food and money and tells him to walk to the prison himself.  What will the Arab do?  Will he do as requested, or will he interpret Daru’s kind actions of money and food and go another route?  The reader will never know.  But when Daru returns home he finds an eerie message of revenge for not doing the delivery as requested.  What will happen to the kind schoolmaster?  Hard to say what will happen but the reader knows the masterful author once again leaves his reader to reflect on good/bad and human choice, what would you do?  It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t – as is many ethical choices in life.  Camus is a quintessential writer who gives the reader the question and we have the obligation to reflect… what would we do?  A great short read.  You have 20 minutes, you gotta read this.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Delirious New York

Who wants to learn more about NYC?  I certainly do.  And when I picked up Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas, I learned a great deal about the early days of NYC and how the architecture of the city was established starting from farmland to becoming the quintessential modern day city of steel.  Koolhaas does his homework related to who the players were in forming the great city which is parallel to none.  Henry Hudson was believed to have discovered Manhattan in 1609, though Native Americans were inhabiting the land for centuries.  In 1626 Peter Minuit bought the land island for $24 dollars from the “Indians” but the sellers don’t own the property!  The sellers were just visiting.  After a quick history of Manhattan, Koolhaas focuses on the actual layout and architecture of Manhattan and parts of the other boroughs, specifically Brooklyn (Coney Island and the land where the World’s Fair occurred).  The city was greatly influenced by creating places for respite and entertainment.  Coney Island was the “great Escape” in the early 1900s, growing to be the place where upwards to a million people would visit over the summer days to be entertained and wowed by the great fairgrounds created by William Reynolds and Maxim Gorky who created Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland.   The fantasy lands were pretty intricate with the canals of Venice, a ride through Switzerland, a simulated flight over Manhattan, one that replicated what a submarine would be like, and an incubator building (really! – a place where preemie babies of the Greater NY area were collected and nursed to health in an incubator!), a Japanese teahouse and finally a “leap frog railway” that enacted a near-collision between two rails (Now we can see how Disney was influenced).  In 1911, it all ends with a fire at Coney Island that destroys the Dreamland area.  The conquest continues to make the largest city of skyscrapers ever with the growth and over-development of Manhattan.  Koolhaas shares the pictures and drawings of plans for the city.  The early 1900s brought more and more immigrants (cheap labor) to build more and more glamorous and decorative buildings to include: Flatiron, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center.  The growth all came to a halt when the Great Depression occurred, beginning in 1929.  The American ideal of “we can do anything” combined with the money to do anything (cheap labor and intense dreams).   Yes, Koolhaas illustrates how delirious the designers of NY were, and almost were able to deliver if it wasn’t for the depression and later new laws that began to regulate the size and dimensions of new buildings.  Still NY remains the epitome of what money and desire can do to a physical location.  I guess the Middle East buildup, specifically in the UAE, may compare in some ways to the rise of architecture of the 1900s.  This was an interesting read, especially for NYers who crave a historical perspective on the growth of their home.  I enjoyed it and would suggest to anyone else.  The pictures alone are worth reviewing.  Love the picture of the 22 bridges that were to be built to connect Manhattan east and west.  I guess traffic would be addressed if those bridges had been built!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Anything But Typical

Reading a book about personal challenges gives a good perspective about what we face when we are in a human relations type of position.  Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin is the story of a young boy with autism who finds he is on the precipice of learning a lesson that may help him move forward in his journey by finding a real friend.  Jason Blake is a twelve year old boy growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut and inundated by insults and being made fun of by his peers in school, on the playground, and in all social outings.  Jason’s journey begins when he reflects on growing up the older of two boys. He shares how he begun understanding the differences of having autism and how he started to be shunned by all his classmates.  As a reader, you really get an insight to the way an autistic child is treated and experiences life.   Jason’s struggles are suddenly changing as he finds an on-line writing group that he is introduced to through his middle school.   Jason’s parallel story (of misfit characters he creates) is posted on-line and receives rave reviews from Rebecca, whom he later learns will also be attending a writing conference that he has been invited to in Texas.  The challenges Jason experiences debating in his own mind to meet Rebecca or not, coupled with his overly conscious-minded movements have him doubting and living in his own mind.  One learns a great deal about the challenges that society places on someone “different” and not following the rules of life, or at least those that we expect of others.  Jason’s story is one of fight and determination, attempting to find his way and when you think he gives up, think again.  This is a feel good story, though it doesn’t always seem that way.  Not having had to deal with autism directly in my life, I had a stronger perspective on how hard it is to be in a world where others “just don’t understand.”  This is a great, quick read for younger children trying to learn about how to support the “other.”  A good lesson for all who read it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Just Kids

Just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, a memoir which chronicles Smith’s growing up in the era of sex, drugs, and rock & roll in the late 1960s.  Smith is best known for her hit single, “Because the Night,” and was dubbed the Godmother of punk rock.  Smith’s story begins as a college student who leaves school to live in the “wild” of New York City where she meets the first love of her life, Robert Mapplethorpe, who later makes a huge name for himself as a controversial photographer best known for his “homoerotic” and “sadomasochistically” themed work.    Smith and Mapplethorpe struggle to do their “art work” in the bowels of the Bowery while residing in the seedy section of Chelsea, both areas pretty unsavory in the day – a far cry from the riches that exist in today’s NYC landscape.  Their physical attraction is immediate, but later wanes as Mapplethorpe explores his feelings for males.  The back and forth sexual attraction between the two finally comes to an end when Mapplethorpe meets his “patron” (as he terms it), Sam Wagstaff, who serves as his source of money to fund his art work.  Smith’s art work includes struggling to find her voice as an artist, though she acts in plays, writes poetry, and finally begins to play in a band, where she will eventually find her success.  As Mapplethorpe gets more reckless with his sexual escapades, Smith tries harder and harder to fight her own attraction to Mapplethorpe and does what she can to continue the friendship.  As the years move along, Mapplethorpe and Smith’s love turns to a deep respect and friendship, where Smith is enamored with Mapplethorpe’s photography and encourages him to show off at art shows.  While their careers begin to take off, it is learned that Mapplethorpe has developed AIDS, which at the time was running rampant in most urban cities around the US, though none more harder hit than NYC.  Mapplethorpe’s eventual demise tears Smith apart.  Smith, after a few decades, reflects on how hard it was to write the book of “coming of age” with her best friend.  For those who have a fondness for the rock ‘n roll area, this is for you.  Smith’s “down and dirty” life and struggle to express, experiment, and love across all boundaries is a great read.  It flows well and captures the artist’s life.  A mixture of sadness and exhilaration all wrapped in one.  This is a life far from my own, so it was an eye opener for me.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

My Two Moms

It appears that a new trend may be occurring with the upcoming RAs for this year in that they really like historical/memoir type books.  Today’s book is My Two Moms by Zach Wahls, a 21-year-old male raised in Iowa who chronicles his experience of being raised by two lesbians.  Wahls’ book comes in response to the Iowa legislative attempt to overturn a new law instituted by the Iowa Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage.  Wahls’ parents married a few years earlier and he is brought to testify that being raised by his mothers was no different than having heterosexual parents.  His speech went viral just over a year ago and it’s had 18 million views!!  Wahls was contacted by some editors to write about this story and the rest is history… This inside look to a growing population of Americans (children of same sex parents) provides the challenges and also successes that illustrates there are limited differences by the composition of having two same sex parents.  Hasn’t this happened when two same sex relatives raise children too?  Wahls story of growing up, being bullied, becoming a boy scout, finding a passion, getting involved in high school debate, and sometimes saying the wrong thing is the same as most high school kids.  What makes him different?  Well, based on how he was raised… nothing.  This is an important historical perspective, or I should say will be in many decades from now as people look to say what the issues were back in the early 2000s.  Wahls’ story is fairly bland and quite repetitive.  As a memoir itself, not the greatest writing, though the story is important to be shared.  Cliff note version would be best.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

And the journey begins… finished my first new book of the 2012-13 campaign.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the real life story of a woman whose cells (known as the HeLa cells) became the most used cells in our society today.  Henrietta, an African-American woman who lived in Baltimore at the time (1951), was unknowingly giving of her cells for medical research while she was at Johns Hopkins Hospital being treated for cervical cancer.  Henrietta’s life story is relived through the young journalist and author of the book, Rebecca Skloot, who learned about HeLa cells during a community college course and later decides to follow-up on the history of HeLa, especially the person behind the cells.  Henrietta had five children with her husband, Day.  So the book actually details a few stories, Henrietta’s struggles with cancer and Rebecca’s determination to identify how HeLa became famous.  Skloot gets her big break through a doctor who interacted with the family previously and connects her with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, whom she convinces her to work on the investigation to learn about the HeLa.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book that confronts the racism shown to African Americans in the United States, shows the way the medical profession takes cells for research without permission from patients, and how low income families are challenged in our society today.  Skloot illustrates how desire to uncover the humanity of our society should be shown for all to see.  This is a book that uncovers a hidden truth, clears the record, and has difference connected in search for the real story.  You should be proud of telling the story for all to read, Ms. Skloot.