Welcome to my bookshelf

I am a voracious reader who is constantly found with her nose in a good (although sometimes not so good) book. I felt the need to share my experiences and suggestions, so here it is. Recommendations and comments are most definitely desired.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Crime and Punishment

Currently Reading: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Pg 198: "Language, after all, does have a way of cementing permanence in history, just like those handprints. People can do what they like with it once you're gone."

Not since July have I posted last. I am embarrassed and need to be better about keeping all you readers up to date, but alas, work is keeping me busy busy. Even now, I have another window open with all the Moon Facts I ought to be working on. Of course, as Noa's story shows, life is too short to fritter away and I need to get better about taking a bit of time for myself too.

Onto the book. Wow! What a great read! Noa metes out the details of her story in such an enticingly slow manner than one can't help but keep reading in order to find out what other secrets she has been keeping from not only us, but the other characters in the novel as well. Noa has spent the last ten years on death row in Pennsylvania for murdering another young woman her own age. Not until the end do we actually find out their specific relationship and the reasonings as well as actual events on that fateful day.

From the get go, Elizabeth Silver manages to make Noa a likable and intriguing character. As the reader, you can't help but be convinced of her innocence and rooting for a happy ending. Even as more and more details of the actual event are doled out, you are still waiting for the ball to drop and the false accusations dispelled. At the same time, other equally important, but somewhat more static, characters are revealed as their part in the story comes out. Splitting the narrative between the present and past, Silver does an excellent job of giving readers just enough information to keep them interested while withholding those crucial details that keep you reading. What a wonderfully crafted tale!

The main theme of this book revolves around the death penalty, something I have some strong feelings about. I remember in 9th grade when I made a speech in Comm Apps persuading my peers why it was not only wrong, but cost prohibitive and overall, worse for not only humanity as a whole, but in a more logistical sense, the state economy. Not a popular attitude to have here in Texas, but I still stand by my findings. Noa's tale just emphases this belief even more. It's like the flood of the other Noah, the one we are all familiar with from Sunday school and the like. A blanket solution is not the answer. Sure there are some truly depraved folks on death row across the country, but countless others are not what they seem. This tale just goes to show that there is certainly more than meets the eye.

Speaking on eyes, a lot of arguments for the death penalty are all about the old "eye for an eye" adage of yore. If you believe this, kuddos to you, but are you actually practicing it entirely throughout your life or is it just in special cases? Again, a solution that punishes the whole for the mistakes of the few.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton delves into other social issues too besides capital punishment. Abortion, abandonment, education and equality are all explored as readers make their way through each section of the book, labeled with a brief timeline specifying the time between then and Day X, Noa's execution date. While all this makes it sound like you are in for a heavy read, fear not. Silver's clever wordsmithing and dynamic characters make for an approachable tale while still keeping your mind busy contemplating the "what ifs" and how these themes make their appearance in our own lives.

The moral of the story is that there is always more than meets the eye and sometimes the story that surfaces is only part of the tale. I will be contemplating these ideas for much time to come. OK. Back to my work. Here's hoping you hear from me again soon!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Twists and Turns

Currently Reading: The Storyteller

And oh what a storyteller Jodi Picoult yet again proves herself to be. If you are ever in need of a meaty story, filled with unforeseen plot twists, complex characters and ethical dilemmas spanning all the shades of gray, all you need to do is pick up one of her wonderful tales. I am a bit proud of myself though because I figured out the big one on page 313, a full 147 pages before the end. And if you've read any of Picoult's other titles, you understand that this is a big deal. I don't know why, but when I read the words, "Hanging on the back of the chair was a woman's cardigan sweater", the answer became completely clear.

The Storyteller is really about several different storytellers and in true Picoult form, each narrator has his or her own font to help us decipher who is taking the lead at the moment. The stories on the surface are really all quite different, but at their core, each carries a common theme, reinventing yourself through the falsehoods you create in your mind. The main character, Sage Singer, tells herself that she is not worth loving due to a horrendous scar on her face and an introverted personality. Her grandmother, seeks to shroud her true experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, in the guise of a fairy tale that would bring even the brothers Grimm to shame. Josef, the former SS officer, feels such shame over his own part in the horrors that he passes along to Sage his story of guilt as a plea to convince her to help him end his own life. The final narrator in this tale is Leo, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, who lets himself believe that his life is justifiable only by the work he does seeking to right past wrongs.

I must admit, I have read many books about the Holocaust, but this is the first time that I truly felt immersed in the horrors of the concentration camps. I don't know if it was because of the personal voice behind Picoult's words or if it was the fact that the story was told from various perspectives interspersed amidst the present, but whatever it was, I am still reeling from the feelings that were evoked. What is more important here is not just relating the story, but seeking retribution or forgiveness depending on whose voice was coming through on that page. Forgiveness is a very difficult thing to really understand and enact. It's often times just as hard for us to ask forgiveness as it is for us to forgive. Mary, a former nun who has befriended Sage, has this inspiring piece of advice:

"... forgiving isn't something you do for someone else. It's something you do for yourself. It's saying, You're not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It's saying, You don't get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future." -pg 451

Wow. I've heard time and time again how your emotions are something you control, "you're only as happy as you make your mind up to be" and all that, but I had not really thought about forgiveness as a personal gift as well, but how true it is! Think about the grudges you have held. They often times do you more mental and physical harm that they do the person you hold them against. Instead of stewing in your anger, you should give yourself a break and release yourself from the pain. Interesting...

I don't' really want to get into too much more detail for fear of giving you too many clues as to what twists to expect when you read The Storyteller yourself (because you should and you will), but I will leave you with another thought from the book about storytelling or rather the lack thereof. I don't know why it spoke to me, but make of it what you will:

"What is the point of trying to put down on paper emotions that are too complex, too huge, too overwhelming to be confined by an alphabet?
Love isn't the only word that fails.
Hate does, too.
And hope. Oh yes, hope.
So you see, this is why I never told my story.
If you lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it.
And if you didn't, you will never understand."
-pg 357-8

Perhaps this is true, but Jodi Picoult once again establishes the fact that she is a master storyteller by coming very close to it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Good Guys

Currently Reading: Syrup

There are certain authors that I just wish would keep writing and writing, putting out new books as fast as I can read them. Maxx (or Max depending on the book) Barry is one of them. Every time I pick up one of his novels, I know I am in for a wild ride filled with witty dialogue, ridiculous situations and more twists and turns than your small intestine. Ironically enough, this was Barry's first novel and obviously  I am reading them out of order. No worries though because this one is worth a look presently as the movie is out now.

Syrup follows a young marketing grad as he attempts to make his way into the lucrative world of soda by scheming with a domineering partner know as Six. Apparently the man can be beaten, he will just take a few licks to your own hide along the way. Fast paced and laugh out loud hilarious, Syrup will definitely whet your appetite for zany, off the wall literature.

Another author whose books I just can't put down is John Scalzi. Prior to reading Syrup, I furiously turned the pages of The Human Division, the latest in a series of books taking place in the universe first imagined in Scalzi's Old Man's War. I love returning to familiar places and meeting up with familiar people, especially when it isn't in the same series of books. These stories have a much higher impact because less time needs to be wasted on the preliminary details, and more words can be devoted to growing the characters and helping them navigate through incredible situations

The Human Division takes readers forward in time a bit so they can see the results of the final actions in the Old Man's War series. Needless to say, I was hooked from page one. The style Scalzi chooses to present his plot line is reminiscent of a series of short stories. The action all revolves around "the B-Team", a haphazardly amassed group of individuals including a testy ambassador and a cynical soldier. This team is repeated put into situations where the outcome is far from positive however, due to some ingenius thinking and oh so fortunate twists, they generally come out (relatively) unscathed. One thing that sets Scalzi apart from many other science fiction authors is that he can't be pegged into one of the typical sci-fi holes like hard science or space opera. Real physics and abstract calculus both play large roles in all of his work, but clever banter and amusing situations surround all those factual descriptions, giving readers a taste of reality wrapped up in a pretty bow. For example, this fun little exchange happens on page 402:

"You mean, how did I come to that conclusion despite the fact that I'm this mission's mushroom," Harry said.
Schmidt frowned. "I don't know what that means," he said.
"It means that you keep me in the dark and feed me shit." Harry said.
"Ah," Schmidt said. "Sorry."

See! How can you not love this guy? Anyways, this one is short and sweet. The moral of the story is, there are a few authors out there who need to clone themselves so they can keep me happy and reading. Of course, I am aware of the fact that there are also authors who really ought to stop now while they're ahead. I'll leave those for you to determine yourselves.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Soulful Sages

Currently Reading: The House at the End of Hope Street

I just spent the last week learning from educators with vast amounts of experience and had a wonderful time taking in the wisdom of these veteran warriors, who I want to emulate as I continue on in my own career. It's amazing how much we can learn from those who have come before us. The folks who have paved the way by taking risks and inventing new techniques. The House at the End of Hope Street revolves around a home where wayward young ladies find their way to and a place where the spirits of former residents roam the halls, sharing their stories and giving advice to those who are lost. One such ghost ruminates:

"[Time] doesn't go forward or back. It's vertical. Eternity sits inside you. So you can spend ten thousand years in one spot and it feels no different than an hour, you see?" pg 30

For them, their who existence revolves around those the are there to help. Each has a particular woman who she is destined to advise. Alba Ashby discovers herself on the doorstep after a betrayal by a trusted mentor. Her journey to self discovery is related through a plot that moves forwards and backwards in time, with details being dolled out bit by bit as the characters begin to take shape. While there are a couple of subplots regarding a couple other residents of the Hope Street home, most of the story revolves around Alba's unfortunate past, befuddled present and potential future. As a precocious young woman, thrust into the world of academia far too soon, Alba is floundering. Feeling the need to impress and continue to fulfill her intellectual promise, she ignores her heart's true love, that of fictional worlds and imagination. She tells herself:

"Who was she, after all, to think that she could create something brilliant and beautiful, something that wouldn't simply be a waste of the paper it was written on?" pg 139

An outcast from her family and peerless at school, Alba finally finds her place in the world through friendship from the lingering souls of the prior residents at Hope Street. Which brings me full circle. Learning to do from those who have done. I'll admit, sometimes I disregard those more chronologically gifted than I. Of course I, a citizen of this ever changing, technologically advanced world, would know more than those fossils!! What I, and really all of us, need to be conscious of though is the knowledge that these folks can share with us. Sometimes it is what not to do, but more often than not, they open our eyes to previously unimagined possibilites. After all, there are really few new ideas these days, merely inspirations about how to improve things or adapt them to our current circumstances. There wouldn't be a cart without the wheel.

Take some time to thank someone who has taught you something new be it a skill or just a different way of thinking. You may actually find that they too had stuff to learn from you! Isn't learning fun :) ?

PS: Now I can't get Darth Vader's line out of my head so I have to include it here too. "When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master." Let's not worry about what he, per Obi-Wan, was a master of and just bask in the glory of Star Wars and its ability to bring enlightenment to us all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recipe for Success, at least in my humble opinion...

Currently Reading: The Comfort of Lies

There are two things that I look for in a novel, the first being engaging characters. To me, the most important thing is not the plot or storyline or even the writing style. First and foremost, a good book has to have complex and thoughtfully unique figures. Personalities that draw the reader in be it in a good way or bad way. The Comfort of Lies alternates between the viewpoints of three women all of whom are connected by a little girl. Tia is the girl's birth mother. She gave her daughter up for adoption after having conceived her while participating in an affair with a married man. Juliette is that man's wife who finds out about Savannah years after her birth and subsequent adoption. Caroline is Savannah's adoptive mother. She had in the past only communicated with Tia via letters, but finds herself face to face with her daughter's mother after being contacted by Juliette. These three women could not be more different however, their motives are all similar at the core. Doing what is best for Savannah.

One of the things that makes this story so dramatic is that you don't particularly like any of the three women. Whether you are reading from their perspective or whether you are seeing them through another woman's eyes, their flaws are glaring and personalities infuriating at times. I don't know that I rooted for any one of them throughout the book, but still, there was something engaging about each one. The one commonality is that they are all mothers, yet they each approach motherhood from a different angle. Tia longs to be present in her daughter's life. Caroline is wondering if she is even cut out to be a mother at all. Juliette finds herself feeling as if she should be a mother figure in Savannah's life despite having two teenage boys of her own.

I love books written in this form because you really get more out of the story than when the narrator is just one person. You get to see how characteristics appear on the surface as well as their motivations beneath the facade each person projects. I had an idea about a book once where each chapter was told from a different point of view, but was really all about the same day in the same general area. Characters would pop up in other peoples' stories and you would feel a brief sense of recognition despite the current narrator's lack of a deep relationship with that other person. Alas, I think it may have already been done. And in a movie too. Ah well. Perhaps just reading about characters and not writing about characters is my destiny. I'll leave the actual doing to the professionals.

Now I'm sure you are all wondering what that other thing is that I look for in a good book. I won't pontificate on it too much, but that other thing is the use of good words. And by use, I mean appropriate and necessary. Too many authors out there try to sound all academic and whatnot by littering their novels with giant words that no one understands. That, I cannot stand. No, it is more about sprinkling intriguing vocabulary in the most surprising places and only when it serves a purpose. I was first introduced to my favorite word, lugubrious, when reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Since then, I have managed to increase my vocabulary all while experiencing words as they should be, as tools used to convey a thought, feeling or purpose within a meaningful context. Some other notables are ostensible, perambulations, nacreous and for some odd reason, loquacious. I don't know why, but that last one just makes me smile.

So in conclusion, captivating characters + memorable words = awesome reading. I love it when I can use math to make my point!

After you are done reading The Comfort of Lies, I have a couple other recommendations from my recent reading which follow my awesome book equation. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson and That's Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson both provide some excellent food for thought. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Behind the Curtain

Currently Reading: Truth in Advertising

Pg 280: "The simple truth is that we know nothing about the person sitting next to us on the plane, in the subway, the car behind us in traffic. We know nothing unless we choose to listen."

Part of the reason that my posts have been so sporadic over the past couple of months is that I have been terrifically busy with work. I'll admit it, I am a bit of a workaholic. It's not that work is the only thing going on in my life right now, but there is always something to do for it and I feel guilty taking time out to do anything personal. Sure I am still reading like a fiend, but that's because most of my reading comes in stollen moments throughout the day. But even now, as I write this I am thinking about how I should be working on my activity for solving systems using elimination. I am also thinking about how some of my colleagues follow this blog and now I am appearing all lazy and whatnot in their eyes. Oh nos! See, this is why I can't focus on something fun every once in awhile. I am too busy thinking...

Work has entirely taken over the life of Finbar Dolan, a sarcastically witty gentleman who plays the protagonist and role of the narrator throughout The Truth in Advertising. Fin most certainly doesn't love his job, but he has found it slowly taking over his life for the past several years and he no longer knows who he is without it. His thoughts inevitably take tangents into the advertising world and how a certain moment would play out in a 30 second time slot or what product it would be used to sell. I'm not going to lie though, some of this are the most hilarious parts of the book.

Fin is thrust back into the real world when he finds himself no longer engaged, the sole offspring even attempting to care about his dying father, and immersed in a comically pathetic campaign to promote biodegradable, non-toxic, flushable diapers (which turn out to not actually be any of those things). It seems like his life has flown by and well, he just plain missed it. Through a brief friendship with the new owner of the company, a Japanesse man who was given the division as a distraction to keep his hands off his father's actual, important livelihood, Fin eventually takes a step back and reassesses his life. Does he end up leaving the company? No. But despite still being an ad man, his world is definitely a rosier place indeed.

The Truth in Advertising was written by a man who is no stranger to the life of a copywriter in New York City. His allusions to popular ads in our pasts fit perfectly in with the story at hand and even his cover art speaks to the power of suggestion. The cover of the novel is white with the title written several times in an ever increasing font size. The words are red and the font is sort of a cross between cursive and print with expansive flourishes on the capital letters.. Every time I look at it, I think of Coca-Cola. While this was most certainly a fictional tale, I do feel I pay more attention to the thought processes (or lack there of) that went into some of the ads I see. I also think I may attempt to try to (yes, I have to attempt to try) take a breather every now and then. In the words of Tyler Durden and all...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Back When We Were Young

Currently Reading: The Best of Us

Sorry for the long delay in posting. Things have picked up at work and various other activities have kept me occupied. To make up for the break, I'm going to focus on a theme I have picked up on recently through the past several books I've read. So this one is a four for one!

"We're messed up, but we're still family... and maybe we're still family because we are so messed up."
Pg 363 from Heart of Palm

Family is a constant in many people's lives, and not just in the present tense. Our lives are shaped by our pasts and no matter what type of family we hail from, these people play a large role in who we become. The memories we have of growing up, be they good or bad, continue to haunt us day after day. As I have recently become an aunt and started watching my little niece grow and change each day, I find myself thinking more and more about my own childhood. Who were the people who surrounded me? What experiences did I have that played large roles in who I am now? One's memories are an amazing thing. They are never fixed, always changing based on what is going on in the present. It may have been a good one a few years ago, but today, you look at it with new eyes.

Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith explores the lives of a family plagued by the mistakes of past generations and unforgivable choices made along the way. Frank, the main character in the book, wants so badly to cut himself free of the Bravo curse and become a new person in a new place, but finds himself tied to home by a handicapped mother, sporadic siblings and a runaway father whose name evoked the burden they all carry. As their small Florida town faces being overrun with resorts, threatening the livelihoods of the local people, Frank finds himself once more pulled in by the calls of memory and family. It is an intelligent and heartfelt tale of how impossible it is to completely cut the ties of home. What made me originally pick it up? The cover blurb is by Richard Russo, one of my favorite authors. Thank you Mr. Russo!

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall follows along some similar veins, however, in the case of the Adair family, it is not a curse upon the family name, but a lack of living up to it that causes the children distress and discord. The daughters of William Adair all find themselves pulled back home once things fall apart in their own lives. Their father, virtually alone now that Alzheimer's has taken over his wife, takes it upon himself to advocate for saving the carriage house once built by his own father, but now residing on a neighbor's plot due to some faulty surveying. While at first they think it is a lost cause, the Adair daughters end up recovering their past selves and emerge from the battle with a renewed sense of purpose. Steeped in vivid details and riddled with hidden mirth, The Carriage House again reminded me to look beyond a present state of mind and recall the good times of yore.

Then of course I needed some peppiness, so I moved onto a YA book, Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt. I suppose I should have gotten the hint from the title and jacket description because this one too  asks readers to consider how the past has affected their present and how family can be both an asset and a source of confusion. Mallory hates the internet. In fact, she has discovered that all her recent sources of woe have come through recent technologies. After stumbling upon a list created by her grandmother when she was a high school in the sixties, Mallory decides to travel back to those carefree days by shunning all technology and things from past that era. Following in her grandma's footsteps, Mallory starts a pep club, attempts to take up sewing and yet despite all her efforts, finds herself yet again in teenage turmoil. Alas, it seems that no matter what decade you are in, adolescence is a pain.

Now it brings me to my current read, The Best of Us by Sarah Pakkanen where a group of college friends reconnect in Jamaica to celebrate the birthday of a common friend. I've just gotten started, but it seems that yet again, familiar questions are popping up in the minds of the characters. Did I make the right decisions back then? Can I change the past? Would it be better that way? I'm already rooting for some of the characters and a bit appalled at the behaviors of others. Should be an interesting read...

So there we have it. Lots of family turmoil and second guessing. What connects the characters in each novel is their devotion to family despite obvious flaws and strenuous situations. When it comes down to it, you can't turn your back on those who helped make you who you are.