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, August 26, 2012

Perfecting Prestidigitation (or at least attempting to)

Currently Reading: Fooling Houdini

Pg 9: "Like physics, magic is all about playing god with the universe."

Pg 98: "I think we totally discount the power of the mind."

While I had several more pages dog-eared, these two quotes seemed to best embody the main theme of this book.  When performing magic, it is more about perception and misdirection that about the physicality of the trick itself.  This actually makes it harder than it may seem to the layperson.  Sure, with practice, one can hone his skills to the point of being able to cut a deck perfectly or shuffle so precisely, but really, the biggest challenge comes from never letting these things take the full attention of the audience.  Making them feel astonished and amused takes another type of skill, one that is fully linked with the power of apprehension.

Alex Stone begins his tale by relating his humiliating defeat at the Magic Olympics.  This may seem odd and out of place.  Why would he start with failure and what would ultimately be the end of practicing magic for so many people?  Well because he realized that he had not truly appreciated the statements quoted above.  The actions and events that follow relate to the reader Alex's journey through honing his physical and mental prowess until he finally discovers what he was missing.  His own signature trick.  Something that embodied not only difficult maneuvers, but also gave the audience a glimpse at his true self.  A side note, Alex was working towards an upper degree in physics at the time. So you can only imagine my excitement when he discovers that mathematics held the key to imagining his ultimate trick.  The book's subtitle, Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind, was what actually made me consider it at all in the first place.  Hooray for my peeps showcasing the awesomeness of math!!

For my latest professional adventure, I had been tasked with reading a book about mindsets.  This refers to people being part of two groups, either a fixed mindset, meaning they think that intelligence and talent are innate and cannot be improved, and a growth mindset, meaning that a person embraces their flaws and always strives to become more proficient in any aspect of their life.  When reading this book, what struck me was Alex's tenacity.  He simply did not give up.  Even after being booed by his peers and at one point even on the brink of exile (yes, there are societies with cards and whatnot), Alex remained persistent and focused on his goal.  That goal was not really to "win", but rather to become better than he was.  Throughout Alex's journey of self-improvement, we are periodically given bits of information about the history of magic, magicians, and everything related.  Still, the story does not get bogged down with these facts.  Most of what Alex does is seek out those who are experts in their particular field and attempts to learn from them.  The tactile master in SanAntonio, the crotchety close up maestro who mentors Alex at the local pizza parlor and even those who run magic seminars and retreats.  All these people play a roll in Alex's eventual success.

I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, but when I like one, I tend to love it.  Now that I have had a chance to ponder on that, I realize that it is the use of a narrative that makes these books so intriguing.  We still have a hero to root for and a goal to be met.  Facts play their part, but the emotions and relationships are even more important.  I was rooting for Alex the entire time I was reading.  Not for the sake of "winning", but more because of his dedication and drive.  He was really quite inspiring not only to myself, but to others in the book as well.  One thing I loved the most was that due to his participation in a psychological study of perception and observation, he ended up inspiring a scientist to look into another sort of research, employing him as one of the parties delivering the sessions.

Congrats to Alex for not only mastering his "move", but for inspiring others and really proving that with persistence, we can achieve magical things.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Snubbed

Currently Reading: The Leftovers

I am actually feeling a bit leftover myself after completing this book, the latest novel by Tom Perrotta.  The Leftovers is the tale of those left behind after the "Sudden Disappearance".  People are unsure of what actually occurred, but one evening in October, hundreds of thousands of people simply disappeared.  There is talk of the rapture, but no, that can't have been the cause because all sort of pious and religious folks were not taken.  Not to mention the fact that those of other faiths actually did disappear.  A couple of major cults have formed, one of which is comprised mainly of people who are reeling from the loss of loved ones, the other mainly adherents of a misguided man who professes the ability to take over people's grief.  Needless to say, there is much confusion abound and people are willing to believe almost anything to make them feel better.

At the same time, there are those who are content with continuing life as it is, among those is Kevin Garvey, the recently elected mayor of a small town.  Kevin loses his wife to one of the cults despite the fact that none from their immediate family disappeared and their two children are alive and well.  We follow the story from his family's various perspectives.  From Kevin, we get the viewpoint of someone who is ready to be done with the moping and wanting to move on.  From Laurie, his distracted wife, we are able to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the Guilty Remnant cult.  Jill, the daughter, takes the reader along with her while she attempts to make her way through high school, directionless and impressionable.  Lastly, the son, Tom, has been hoodwinked into the secondary cult, mostly because he was disillusioned by college and can't find his place in the world.  Nora, a woman who lost not only her husband but her two children as well, brings in the viewpoint of someone not willing to let go, but not weak enough to fall prey to any bogus organization.

You would think that having all these unique perspectives would relate a dynamic and engaging story of life after the SD.  Alas, that is not really the case.  I find myself leaving the characters with even more questions than answers.  Not much is really resolved and I can't help but feel the characters didn't grow or change very much.  Maybe I was expecting too much.  I kept hoping for a breakthrough for at least one of them even into the last chapter and at first, it seemed like something would suddenly happen, but no.  There were no life-altering events or even a sudden change in feelings or emotions.  We are left at the end with a group of people very similar to the one we started with.  I even half expected all the disappeared people to return and again, I was disappointed.

Oh well.  They can not all be winners for every reader and maybe I just missed Perrotta's point.  Still, as Kevin would say, life goes on.  Now off to another story and another world.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thematic

Currently Reading: In One Person

Pg 362: "F---ing wrestlers!  ...  Just when you imagined they were finally talking about other things, they kept coming back to the frigging wrestling; they were all like that!"

Perhaps Mr. Irving is referring to himself in that quote?  I can't help but wait with eager anticipation anytime I read a novel by John Irving.  When will the wrestlers make their first appearance?  If you've ever read Waiting For Piggy Snead, you know that he speaks from experience when he refers to all things wrestling.  Irving puts so much of himself into an piece of work he is writing that they often read as autobiographies.  You truly believe these things actually happened and that these people are real.  This one is especially poignant as William "Bill" Abbott's childhood closely mirrors that of Irving himself.

Bill's actual father has run off and he is left to live with his mother and her extended family in First Sister, a town more known for its private all boys school, Favorite River.  A stranger comes to town and captures the heart of not only Bill's mother, but Bill himself and the rest of the family as well.  This man, Richard Abbott, adopts Bill as his own and begins to impart upon the community a great love for theater and literature.  Well, some of them take to it.  Now here is where the story strays from Irving's own experiences.  Not only is Bill's grandfather a fan of playing women's roles in the community theater, but the librarian is actually a transgender man posing as a woman and Bill himself is drawn towards homosexual tendencies and eventually classifies himself as a bisexual.

As with many of Irving's other stories, In One Person, gives a voice to those who are often ostracized by the community as a whole.  He gives these people a voice and allows the reader an opportunity to see what everyday life is like for them, not simply focusing on the bizarre and spectacular elements of Bill's life.  We follow Bill throughout most of his life, from pre-teen years through his sixties, getting glimpses at the relationships, friendships, and losses that he experiences.  Visions of the past continually pop up, regardless of what continent Bill is in and it seems he will never be able to cut them out completely and eventually succumbs, moving back to his childhood home and becoming a teacher at Favorite River himself.  But don't worry, Bill keeps his uniqueness throughout the tale and only becomes a teacher after being introduced to a precocious young student (who just happens to be George in the process of becoming Georgia).

One of the most moving chapters of this novel is entitled "A World of Epilogues".  This title comes from some insider knowledge earlier in the book (can anyone say Prospero?) and is about the eighties and early nineties when Bill loses many of his friends to AIDS.  Irving does a wonderful job of subtlety showcasing the wrongful accusations and mistreatment towards gay, lesbian, transgender, and other "sexual outsiders".  Why is it wrong to be who you are?

In this book, many of Irving's familiar themes continue.  There is a preoccupation with sexual exploration, the ever-present authority figures from youth pop up when you least expect them, and the main character is struggling with interpreting the loss of a parent.  Other commonalities are the fact that the main character is a writer, something that continually shapes his worldview, and of course, the main setting is New England where a far off war has undoubtedly changed someone's life forever.  I couldn't help but feel that this one seemed oh so similar to The World According to Garp.  Perhaps it was the wrestling or the private school setting.  Or maybe it was just the voice throughout the story, a lonely boy seeking his place in the world.  Regardless, as always, even though the generalities persist across novels, you can't help but be in awe each time you put down a John Irving tome.  They never cease to amaze and I promise, In One Person does as well.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Whoa...

Currently Reading: Gone Girl

This does not start with a quote because well, it seems as though nothing in this book represented anyone's true thoughts or perhaps all those thoughts were so true that they almost seemed false.  Don't get me wrong, this book was quite simply gripping.  From page 1 to page 415.  After I was finally able to put it down, I sat back and thought "SHITE!"  And that was it.

I really can't get into the nitty gritty here because there were so many twists and turns and unexpected events that telling even a bit of the story would be ruining it for all of you who are now going to go out and read this book.  And yes, that is an order.  I will give you this though, the story begins with Nick discovering that his wife is missing.  The house appears in disarray, the police are notified, and the hunt begins.  That is about as far as I can go without revealing anything in the story.  I heard of another reader who literally gasped out loud while reading this, Gillian Flynn's most terrifying novel.  Not terrifying so much in that it is grotesque or mortifying, but terrifying because it is all too believable.  At least from my humble perspective.

The planning and thought that must have occurred prior to writing this novel is mind-boggling.  Everything fits perfectly yet everything is a surprise.  I kept predicting things and then they would happen and then yet another twist would be thrown out.  It makes me pause to ponder the effort that truly great writers put into their works.  Sure there are loads of wannabes (for lack of a better term), but Ms. Flynn has now solidified her presence in the ranks of greatness.  Will this be a "classic"?  Probably not, but I don't think that is what readers are looking for these days.

What makes a book sellable?  Well I suppose that the characters play a large part in it.  We read loads of not very literary books because we care about the protagonist.  In Gone Girl, you really don't end up liking any of the characters, but they are compelling in a way that you want to find out what makes them tick.  How on Earth could Amy (the wife) have thought of all that?  Why did Nick do that thing with that girl in that bar?  Goodness.  I still don't have them figured out at this point and I doubt that I ever will.  Of course, I will still be thinking about them for some time despite having come to the conclusion of the tale.  Which leads me to the second thing a sellable book most likely has, stickiness.

The ability to stick with someone even after the thing is past is something that not only books can possess, but movies, paintings, and even just ideas can have this wonderful quality.  Maybe that is what those "classics" were all about.  Pride and Prejudice was an OK book, but the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett has been analyzed and aped for over a hundred years.  That underlying tale stuck with people just as many of Shakespeare's plays have stuck with people.  Stickiness is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately, but more in terms of ideas.  Still, I think it is applicable here as well.  Chip and Dan Heath have come up with a remarkably simple formula for creating ideas that stick.  Gone Girl demonstrates all of these and then some.

I suppose I could go on and on about the amazing qualities of this novel, but I am going to stop now because you all need to get started reading it.  I will add this little tipbit though.  Before I started to read Gone Girl, I had no idea what it was about.  In fact I only picked it up because it had been recommended to me by a fellow reader.  Then, once I finally got it from the ridiculously long wait list at the library, I was reluctant to begin.  Why?  Well I had some preconceived notions due to another Flynn book I had attempted to read and then stopped.  I decided to give it a try anyways, promising to put it down if I wasn't enjoying it.  As you can tell from the above, I never did put it down.  Another quality of a sellable book, it was engrossing and all the more so because I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  For those of you who would like a review actually based upon actions in the book, click here, but I warn you, it is all the better without any prior knowledge.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Swan Lake ... of Misery

Currently Reading: The Cranes Dance

Pg 23: "... I don't see how knowing why I have this fear will help stop it."

I must admit that I related to this quote oh so well.  I too have an issue (not the fear of something stabbing me in the eye like our protagonist, Kate), and despite delving into why it is there to begin with, I still have not fully dealt with it.  The reasons for this are many, but in this regard, I could certainly understand Kate's feelings.  So now I suppose you are wondering who Kate is and what this book is about, so I suppose I will let you in on the plot.

Kate is a ballerina.  Seriously.  She is employed by the New York Ballet and has worked her way up to soloist, but alas, her younger sister Gwen, has already been named a principle (something far better than soloist from what I have gathered).  The story takes place after Gwen has returned home due to a mental breakdown, but her presence is constant throughout the actions and behaviors demonstrated by Kate.  One thing that comes across clearly is that the author, Meg Howrey, was definitely a dancer herself.  The inner workings of the ballet company are exposed, although they are not the main feature of the story.  In the midst of all the olympic talk, I can't help but relate their lives to the lives of youg gymnasts.  Hard work, little reward, and constant self-degration seem to be the norm.

I am not going to rave on and on about this one as I have done for many of the previous posts.  This book was difficult to read.  Not the language really, but the emotional toll it takes on the reader is challenging to say the least.  I am thoroughly exhausted and not just due to the angst.  Kate and Gwen both make many foolhardy decisions that leave you cringing.  There were many times I wanted to just scream at them.  You can see why Kate became frustrated with her little sister because you too are ready to throw Gwen into the river by the time the book is done.  I don't know if this was Howrey's intention or not, but if it was, she most certainly achieved her goal.  I also don't know who I would recommend it too.  Their adolescent minds, despite the fact that the girls are in their twenties, will not appeal to many folks I know as well as the inaneness of their thoughts and actions.  I am not saying it is bad, but rather for persons with certain tastes.

So now I am off to ice my wounds with a little science fiction.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Shhh...

Currently Reading: The Expats

Pg 299: "We all see ourselves as the center of everything."

Kate has found herself in a sticky situation.  Her husband, mild mannered computer nerd, is not exactly as he seems.  In fact, it turns out he has stolen 50 million Euros from a Serbian overlord and now has the FBI hot on his tail.  Of course he does not know this at the moment.  Only Kate has uncovered the truth.  Or so it seems.  I suppose you are wondering how a simple housewife and mother of two has discovered this scheme.  Well Kate is not what she seems either.  As a former CIA spy, Kate has to recall habits of old and do what she can to save her family.

Wow.  When I read that last paragraph, it makes this book seem common place in the world of spy thrillers, but rest assured, it is not just another page turner.  Chris Pavone brings us into the lives of these expats and others in a very engaging way.  He sprinkles chapters based in the present time between the events that had occurred in the years prior.  His unique main character is not just another CIA operative playing a role to keep up with appearances.  Kate really did give up her job and travel across the globe to be with her husband who supposedly is working for a hyper-secretive bank, helping boost their computer security.  When she stumbles upon this hidden plot, she is not happy to be pulled back into the world of international intrigue.  One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was that Kate, representing the CIA, is forced to work against its national counterpart, the FBI and its agents who are pursuing her husband.  This foe/friend template adds some interesting twists and turns in the plot.  In the end, even if you thought you knew everything, little clues finally add up and the last chapter is indeed a shocker.

One of the major themes of this novel is secrecy.  Kate obviously has managed to keep her past career and actions from her husband just as he kept his extracurricular activities from her.  The FBI "couple" who befriend Kate's family also practice this secret keeping practice.  Throughout the tale, it is hard to figure out who knows what and who is telling the truth.  Kate struggles with something that many people have to consider each day.  There will come a time when she has to reveal her past, but how much of it to tell?  How much is enough to reestablish trust?  It seems Kate has also done some things in the past that she is reluctant to share even with the reader.  This adds another layer of suspense to the fictional story, but it also appears each day when we interact with each other.  How many lies have you told this week in order to keep something to yourself?  Think about it.  The answer is probably more than you realize.  Little white lies add up.  That raises another question.

When is lying better than telling the truth?  This idea is something that has been pondered over for centuries and perhaps there is no right answer.  You will always find people who say the truth always triumphs, but often they are the ones immersed in an ocean of lies.  For me, sometimes there are things that I would prefer not to know. Let me live in my blissful ignorance for just a bit longer before bursting the bubble.  That's the thing about secrets though.  They are ours to share or keep.  One thing to keep in mind though is something that Kate herself discovers over the course of the novel, just because you think something is a secret, it doesn't always mean it actually is.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Backwards Thinking

Currently Reading: The Night Watch

Pg 58:  "Was it crazy, she wondered, to be as grateful as she felt now, for moments like this, in a world that had atomic bombs in it - and concentration camps, and gas chambers? ... Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to trifles ... ?"

Sarah Waters brings us another wonderful tale of love, sorrow, and the desire to find one's place in the world through her masterful wordplay and character development in The Night Watch.  Waters begins the story in 1947, but as the next sections appear, we find ourselves delving into the past in 1944 and finally 1941.  At first this backwards sort of chronology may seem weird, but one of the most exciting features of this book is discovering new facts and features about the characters you thought you knew in the first section.  Waters doles out details only as needed and each page reveals something new about  her characters.  The suspense created by this technique is intoxicating, as are the morsels that are slowly uncovered for the reader.  I find myself constantly thinking, "So that's why..." and "Oh now I know why she was so mad...".  Very exciting.

Another fascinating feature of The Night Watch, as well as Waters' other novels, is that she relates the stories of people who do not fit in with the social norms.  Amongst the main characters are three women in the midst of a trying love triangle, an adulterer and his young mistress, a pair of felons, one of whom was in prison because he tried to kill himself after the death of his boyfriend, and a cast of hilarious women working the night watch for the hospital ambulance services.  They are all tied together by the most incredible, but totally believable events occurring in war time London.  Waters' tendency towards these often overlooked people made me look more into her past to see where some of this may have come from.  It turns out that Sarah can relate all too well with her lesbian characters as being someone who does not fit the typical mold of social acceptability.  Her desire to highlight and celebrate these characters is admirable and certainly increase the suspense in her novels.  Will they be found out?  And also, why does it matter?

The Night Watch, along with other novels by this author, is carefully researched and holds true to the time period as well as settings.  Many novels have been written about this era, but few pull you into daily living as greatly as this one.  Throughout all the biographical information I was able to find about Sarah Waters one major theme remained constant.  She is a life long learner.  Her academic passions prompted her to earn her Ph. D. as well as work as an associate lecturer at times.  When you see her list of awards and accolades, it is clear that she is an academic writer, but even to those of us unable to grasp all the subtle nuances of language, theme and motif, her books are just darn good.  Enough said.

One thing that is still bothering me, and now that I am well into 1941 and the past, is that some of the questions I had at the beginning of the novel will not be answered.  Not because the story ended too soon, but more like it didn't start late enough.  Just like any novel, be it written backwards or forwards, I am still left thinking, what happens next?  I suppose that's just one of the risks you take when reading anything.  The rest is all left up to the reader.  Touche, Ms. Waters.