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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tolerating Intolerance

Currently Reading: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

How much of ourselves is predetermined by genetic makeup and what portion is moldable by our surroundings and upbringing? This question is explored throughout Emily M. Danforth's fictional debut as she relates the tumultuous teenage years of Cameron Post, an orphaned lesbian girl living in conservative Miles City, Montana.

From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Cam is faced with a seemingly impossible task, remaining true to herself in the face of extreme prejudice. While sharing her first kiss with a childhood friend, Cam finds out that her parents have both died in a car accident. Later, this same friend abandons Cam after leaving for boarding school, deeming Cam too unsophisticated and strange for her new life. Cam eventually finds a home with the jocks at school, a group of boys on the swim and track teams. These relationships ebb and flow while Cam struggles to find her place in the group. When she finally thinks she has found a true best friend, this girl turns on Cam, outing her to the community and shunning her while hiding amongst the elders at their church. For her sins, Cam gets sent to an ultraconservative "camp" which promises to rid homosexuals of their sinful ways. While life at Promise is anything but enjoyable, Cam finally finds a group of friends who accept her for who she is, the small silver lining on an adolescence filled with loss and rejection.

So all this leads back to my original question, what is nature and what is nurture? Cameron knows for a fact that who she is cannot be changed, but those around her, including a well meaning aunt and concerned counselors, seem to think that her inherent nature is something that can be fixed with a load of prayers and some strong will. These people and their beliefs are shaped entirely by their upbringing and the community in which they reside. Why should that trump genetics?

Intolerance is making a comeback in certain circles and it makes me sick to my stomach that the events related in The Miseducation of Cameron Post are still occurring this very day. Teens and well, everyone else too, are faced with prejudiced opinions based on everything from sexual orientation to skin color and even economic status. This sounds like something from the past, a condition we had fought to eradicate from our country decades ago, but alas, ultraconservatism is on the rise again and with it, ultra judgmental condemnations. The thing that makes me the saddest is that teens are faced with enough confusion as it is and these outside influences are just making it that much harder to navigate one's way through that fun, fun time we call high school. As a high school educator myself, I see first hand each day the effects of such negative thoughts have on the already confused kiddos.

I am not the most sentimental of persons (nature again... :P), but as I read my way through this book, I constantly empathized with Cameron and couldn't help but be indignant on her behalf. I wanted to take her aunt, fellow students, and those other Miles City residents aside and berate them for the way they treated Cam. Not only was she an excellent athlete, but she was kind, intelligent and a hard worker, all traits that seemed pushed aside by those focusing only on the "flaw". I know I've said this in posts before, but apparently it must be said again, why can't we all just get along? And by get along, I mean set aside those silly stereotypes and focus on humanity. We are all people who deserve to be who we are, like what we like, and if you don't like it, well fine. You can change yourself if you'd like, but please don't try to "fix" others. They may like the way they are.

OK. I'm off my soapbox now. I promise my next post will be a happier one!

Sunday, May 5, 2013


Currently Reading: When We Wake

Pg 1: "We all begin with our pasts."

As I read those words again, I couldn't help but see even more how true they really are. Each word in this sentence, as I type them out, becomes a part of my own past and even yours as you read them. When you meet someone new, think about what you share with each other. You may start with something like "I love to read", but even that current activity or feeling has been profoundly influenced by your past. Down to our very DNA, we are all products of things that have come before us.

Tegan Oglietti's past plays a large role in the situation she is faced with when being reanimated after being cryogenically frozen for a hundred years. When she wakes, Tegan finds herself totally alone in the world, all her friends and family long dead. On a bright sunny day, Tegan had set out with her friends to attend a political protest, something they had done before. On a high from finally connecting with a young man she had been pining over, Tegan blissfully travelled to the city center, entered in the crowd of people, and found herself the unfortunate victim of a sniper aiming to assassinate the Prime Minister.

The Australian military took advantage of Tegan's status as an organ donor and kept all viable parts of her in a secret laboratory where they were working to find a way to literally bring soldiers back from the dead. It took them decades, but once the procedure was perfected, Tegan was awoken to a world of troubles. Keeping her beliefs from the past, she hooked up with some new friends and strived to show the true reasons behind her reawakening to the public and lift the veil of lies the various feuding groups had proliferated amongst the masses.

When We Wake is yet another dystopian future novel written for young adults. I have blogged about such books in the past and while loving them, now find myself wondering what is it about this genre that makes it so popular among authors and teen readers? Maybe it all relates back to the quote. The past is something that students must study year in and year out. They are constantly managed by people who are products of the past and that must certainly be tiring for teenagers, especially those at the age where they think they know more than those pesky old folks. These novels are typically focused on the future as a thing young adults have control over. Like it or not, they are the future ;) I happen to be of the liking mind. Maybe that's because I am an educator or maybe it is because I like to believe in the amazing possibilities that our increasingly complex collective knowledge brings for us. But I can also see these books in another light. Perhaps they are not about empowering young readers, but more about warning them. Be careful what you wish for and all that.

I am currently a member of what I affectionately call "My Old Lady Bookclub". I refer to it like that in the most respectful sense because I love talking to these women and getting their perspective on things. Their past experiences often give them a completely different reading experience and I always leave the meetings with new thoughts to ponder. Then, of course, there is the fact that bookclubs are not too popular among people my own age. Still, all these YA books that I tend to read make me more excited about talking to teens about what they read as well. I am starting at a new school that is opening up next year and I hope that a bookclub is something the students decide to establish. This way I can get some answers to all my burning questions. What do they think about these types of books? I can't wait to find out!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Currently Reading: Gulp

Mary Roach represents the ideal nonfiction author, at least in my book she does. Gulp is the latest in her writings relating the tales of the alimentary canal. It is sad but true that we take so much of the inner workings of our bodies for granted. Why does food get digested the way that it does? Why do we eat certain foods in the first place? These questions and more are answered throughout this thoroughly gross but entertaining book.

What makes Roach's writing standout is her approachable style and humorous asides. She manages to make the layman understand all sorts of complicated stuff. Another thing that I love about Mary Roach is that she really does her research. No shoddy data and third party stories for her! Roach gets down and dirty, taking part in experiments and endlessly "harassing" experts with questions, both of the deep intellectual sort as well as those things you and I just have to know. There is no stupid question in Roach's mind.

As with her previous books, Roach starts at the very beginning (which we all know is a very good place to start) and doesn't cease in her quest for knowledge until she reaches the very end. The cool part about the topic for Gulp is that we literally travel with our food as it makes its way through the alimentary canal. Chapter One gives us a taste (pun!) for what science is involved in our food selection and taste preferences. We move through to the mouth, taking a brief stop to talk about all those long chewing fads. Next up is the stomach and then on to the dirty stuff, tooting our own horns and dealing with being plugged up (yuck but oh too interesting). I will never take these everyday occurrences for granted again.

While learning all this scientific awesomeness, we are also treated to some interesting trivial with which to entertain partygoers and the like. For example, what really caused the demise of the King? A couple of my favorites include:

"High-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats by the body oils like sebum). Landry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box."  - Pg 111

"No engineer could design something as multifunctional and fine-tuned as an anus. To call someone an asshole is really bragging them up."  - Pg 216

Mary Roach is wholeheartedly an author I would recommended to anyone who not only wants to learn a bit, but is up for an engaging and humorous read. While Gulp was fantastic, if you are just starting out on your journey through her books, I highly suggest picking up Stiff. Packing for Mars and Spook are also fantastic, but there is just something alluring about Stiff's subtitle: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

For a video preview to the tales included in Gulp, check out Roach's interview on the Daily Show. Two funny folks in the same room! How could it possibly be bad?

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mary Roach
Daily Show Full EpisodesIndecision Political HumorThe Daily Show on Facebook

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Math Is Your Friend

Currently Reading: Princess Elizabeth's Spy

Pg 89: "The study of mathematics develops the imagination. It trains the mind to think clearly and logically. Elegantly, even. It challenges our thinking. It forces us to make the complex simple."

I couldn't have said it better myself! One of the things I love about math is that it is inherent in each and every little thing we do each day. If it weren't for mathematics, I wouldn't be typing these words write now and you certainly wouldn't be reading them. The book featured in this post couldn't have been created nor could it's main topic have been as intriguing and important as it was. I think math gets a bad rap sometimes. I often hear not only students, but adults as well, bemoan the horrors of their past math classes, but I think it is more a matter of mindset than true difficulty with the concepts. Everyone can learn to do math, but appreciating it is a bit harder at times. When we have all these computers to do the work for us, we ignore the problem solving and creativity that complex algorithms can inspire. At least that's what I tell the kids. Whether or not they believe me is still up in the air...

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is a fascinating tale following an MI5 agent as she is forced to take on a seemingly superfluous assignment, watching over the princesses as they are sequestered at Windsor Castle during World War 2. Maggie Hope joins the staff under the cover story of being the math tutor for a young Princess Elizabeth. Here she stumbles upon a crafty plot filled with the most unlikely of characters.

Codes play a large role in the novel and interpreting them is key to saving the princesses. Coding is something that has been on my mind a lot lately due to another project we are working on for the new Academy I am going to be a part of. Math is the base of almost every code, even those that are symbolic in nature but as mentioned before, a lot of people don't recognize it. Still, what a cool way to show students the amazing things they can do when they understand concepts such as matrices and functions and their inverses. I wish I had codes to call upon as a hook to learning these topics when I was in school. While I love math in any form, it would have been a fun challenge to try to demonstrate my learning in this way. Why don't we do this more often? You never know when you'll need to share some secrets ;)

Another thing I liked about this book was revisiting Lilibet in her younger years. I recently read another book about Queen Elizabeth (see post here), but in her later years. How fun to get to see another side of the Queen! And again, that Britishness always engages me (yet another earlier post). I thought it was quite poignant that both novels were able to capture certain characteristics of Elizabeth in two so different tales. She is definitely an inspiring lady with so much tragedy in her life. Of course her stalwart nature is always clear though and it's no wonder the folks across the pond collect postcards plastered with her face. Long live the Queen, I suppose.

I'll leave you with another fun mathy quote, this one from The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister:

Solve for x the teacher would say, and Al could almost hear the numbers whispering in anticipation, ready to dive under the bar of a fraction, disappear down the trapdoor of a subtraction sign. It could make you feel almost sorry for the x, Al thought, with everybody staring at it, concentrating, their only goal to leave it standing alone.

Yes, math is awesome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Girls... Sigh...

Currently Reading: A Tale of Two Sisters

My family has four kids. I am the only girl. I love each and every one of my three brothers and they are all awesomely unique in their own little ways, but for some reason, as a young girl, I had always wanted a sister. When my youngest brother was born, I hid under the bed and cried for hours. I had been promised a sister, but alas, little Kelly Marie popped out as not so little Alexander John. Of course it only took me a little time to finally come to my senses and realized that I actually had things pretty good. Being the only girl meant I always had my own room, didn't have to wear hand-me-downs (at least not too many of them) and when we moved to our fancy house in Plano, I got the bedroom with the attached bathroom! Hooray!

Seriously though, I'm not sure I could have handled a sister very well. I am a tomboy myself and loose patience with girly stuff. My mom was plenty for me. Plus, who would have played legos and had squirt gun fights with me? Certainly not Kelly. Or at least that's what I assume...

So many books out there are surrounded around sisterhood. Sometimes it is families and other times it is girlfriends (another place where I am lacking). These tales of moving through womanhood are always emotionally packed, filled with backstabbing and tears, and of course, someone is always feeling inferior. Why such sorrow? Is it my own naivety when it comes to these lasting female bonds or do authors blow things out of proportion? I fear this is something I many never know. On the plus side though, I know I always have people who are up for playing Super Smash Bros. with me.

A Tale of Two Sisters is typical in terms of the sister narrative, but I enjoyed it all the same, mostly because of Anna Maxted's engaging writing style. Her dialogue is filled with quirky oneliners, characters are always multi-faceted and the plot moves quickly. This is my third Maxted novel and I was pleased with her growth as a writer. One of the best parts of her books is the attention to detail she gives when crafting descriptions. My favorite from this book was on page 97 where she describes a loquacious brother in law.

George always had something to say, even if it was rubbish. In fact, you could have fed George into a sausage machine and chances were he'd still be talking until his head disappeared down the chute and emerged the other end, a frankfurter.

What's not to love about this wacky yet talented author? Oh and Anna Maxted is oh so British, something I have come to adore in the books I read. In fact, British authors have been so ubiquitous in my selections that my vernacular now includes such fun little words like fancy (as in "Would you fancy a crisp?") and I understand completely when someone sighs about having to purchase their wardrobe at Top Shop.

And now I've got to pop out to Boots for some plasters so cheers and cheerio and all that ;)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tales From the Crypt

Currently Reading: Dissecting Death: Secrets of a Medical Examiner

The current project we are working on at work has inspired a bit of morbid reading including Dissecting Death and The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist. I know what you must be thinking. Why such a dark subject? In actuality, I have found myself completely engaged in both books, dog-earring pages containing topics just begging for further research and opening my mind to new and enlightening methods used by these professionals. Both books are written by actual practitioners and are first person narratives outlining not only the basics behind each vocation, but highlighting memorable cases throughout their careers.

I'll do these in order of reading, starting with The Bone Lady. Mary Manhein lives and works in the South, mainly around Louisiana, but as her profession is a unique one, she is often called to neighboring states to consult as well. In fact, Manhein's expertise is so renown that she is referred to as "The Bone Lady" by those seeking her advice. Manhein is a forensic anthropologist. So what does that actually mean? Well, basically if there are bones involved, be they really old or fairly new, a forensic anthropologist is needed to help examine those remains and determine facts about the victim and sometimes even the cause of death. As the job title alludes to, often times these bones are quite ancient and Manhein has taken part in many digs involving Civil War sites or old, unsolved cases. Basically, if you stumble upon some bones while digging for a new septic tank, Mary Manhein is the one the police call to help find out if it was the former resident or the dearly departed family pet. A cool project that Manhein and her team have been working on involves the NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) and MAPS (Model Age Progression Sites). Mary and her team use the software program, FACES, to help reunite families with their loved ones by creating age progression images of missing children in an effort to determine what fate befell them. Some super cool stuff is happening in the world of forensics and their efforts have already helped to provide closure for several families.

So bones are actually the nice side of forensics. In Dissecting Death, we delve into the biological world of decaying tissue, swarming maggots and pooling blood in an effort to not only discover who the victim is, but also find clues that point to the perpetrator. When I first started this little reading adventure, I expected gruesome tales and The Bone Lady seemed a lot tamer than I anticipated. But of course, I got my fill in this one because it seems the really messy work falls into the hands of a medical examiner, or forensic pathologist to be precise. Dr. Frederick Zugibe has been medical examiner for Rockland County, New York for well over 35 years now and he imparts several choice tales throughout this book. I was ever so grateful for Chapter 1 in which he not only shares an incredibly unique case, but also slowly introduces readers to terms and techniques often used in his profession. Zugibe does an excellent job of relaying the facts, balancing commentary with official reports and thoroughly engages even us lay readers in the actual cases he shares. As a math junky, I found myself especially intrigued by the innovative techniques he used to investigate things as varied as insect larvae found in a body and trajectories of bullets fired from various distances.

Yes, these books were both departures from my tried and true literary fiction choices, but ones that I am glad to add to my ever expanding spreadsheet aptly titled "Some of the Books I Have Read" (I started my list well into my literary years and felt the need to point this out). I also feel we have some strong candidates for accompanying titles to our crime scene investigation project. I'm excited to see how it all works out!

Now I am off to do some investigation of my own involving the mathy stuff these books imparted. And while the nonfiction path was fun for a bit, my brain needs some made up fiction for a bit.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lots of Books!!

Currently Reading: Shades of Earth

This past week was Spring Break and so I spent all my idle time wisely. Gathered some stars, started a circle skirt and of course, devoured copious amounts of books. The main focus of my reading was working on several young adult series recommended to me by my friendly neighborhood librarian.

The first one was Homeland, the book that warranted its own post because it was that awesome. This is the sequel to Cory Doctorow's acclaimed Little Brother and did not disappoint in the least. I don't think this was ever intended to be a series, but I was oh so glad it ended up being one. In fact, I wouldn't mind catching up with Marcus again sometime soon.

Next, I started a new trilogy. I know! Enough with the trilogies folks! Julie Cross' Tempest trio starts with the aptly named Tempest, a novel that follows, uniquely enough these days, a young man as he becomes more familiar with his ability to time travel. For the most part, Jackson is in charge of his comings and goings, but occasionally, things go awry. He witnesses his girlfriend's potentially fatal injury at the hands of evil agents and is immediately pulled back in time to another place in his life. Jackson's troubles stem from the fact that he and his young sister were, for all intents and purposes, bred to become time travelers. His adopted father works for a secret department of the CIA whose existence is know only to a few chosen agents and of course the nefarious evildoers who want to harness time travel for their own dastardly deeds. When we leave Jackson at the end of Tempest, he has convinced his father to train him as an agent as well, hoping to undo the events of the future. One thing to note about this one is that it actually takes place mostly in the past. Yes, 2009 isn't that far past, but it makes for an interesting change to the latest fad of dystopian future trilogies out there. Speaking of which...

I continued my journey through these serial tales by picking up the second offering in the Ashes trilogy, Shadows. In this set, we are following the journey of Alex, a young lady who has remarkably survived "changing", something that happened to most people between the ages of about 13 and 50 after an unknown event utterly changed the world. Reminding me strongly of The Road, this series speaks of a future where people are forced to revert back to more primal needs while at the same time avoiding The Changed, or Chuckies, as some call them. These rabid teenagers and young adults have become cannibals, feasting on whatever or whomever crosses their path. The first book left things very up in the air and this second one does not disappoint in that arena either. At the end of Ashes, Alex and her friend Tom had been separated and both fear the worst about their counterpart. Shadows ends with them having just rediscovered each other only to be separated yet again. Alas, I have to wait until September for Monsters, book three, to reach us eager readers and help out our minds to rest. And yet again, speaking of which...

My last selection, Shades of Earth, was the coda of the Across the Universe trilogy by Beth Revis. Finally I found some closure!! Shades of Earth picks up right where the last novel ended. Seriously. The shipborn, residing on the Godspeed, a ship sent by Earth centuries prior to help populate a new planet, have split into those willing to risk landing on said planet and those who desire to stay on the ship. The ship is of course in dire straights and survival is not guaranteed in either case. Amy and Elder, the protagonists of this trilogy, are among those heading down to the planet and what they find there completely catches them off guard. Throughout the novel, Revis continues to impress readers with her seamless switching between narrators for each chapter. This technique is fitting for several reasons, most important being that it gives both a male and female perspective on the action. Male protagonists are too rare these days it seems. I felt satisfied with the final installment of this series, getting questions answered while also having a new and unique plot to follow. I'm a bit sad to leave Amy and Elder, but glad to know that their future is ensured. At least for as long as I am willing to believe so. Revis ends on a positive note, yet still leaves room for the reader to imagine whatever he or she wishes. I'm all for hoping all goes well and all that sappiness ;)

So that ends my recap of the week's offerings. Next in the queue is The Sandcastle Girls, something that promises to be all too adult, sad and heart wrenching. Ah well, I do need to grow up sometimes...

Friday, March 15, 2013

(Not) Queen For A Day

Currently Reading: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

This first fictional offering by William Kuhn, a noted biographer, is a delightful little romp across the UK, following the queen, oops! excuse me, The Queen as she decides to take charge of her life for a day. Along the way, her royal highness inadvertently involves several other parties in this veer from the norm, not only affecting their daily activities, but touching their hearts as well.

Sigh... sounds so idyllic and whatnot, don't it? Of course, now it begs to consider, how real was this little tale? Reminding me strongly of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, the story that Kuhn relates is one of an idealized old lady, plodding along on her way towards irrelevancy. The Queen is reduced from an epic fairly tale character to someone who the everyman could relate to. She takes the train (in addition to a taxi cab and then eventually helicopter) as any person would do, buying a quick bite in the dining car, making small talk with her fellow passengers. When faced with the need to purchase some cheese, she heads over to the shop and inquires the young cheesemonger about his wares. Obviously this is a work of fiction and despite the inclusion of some very real photographs, Kuhn provides no details as to his legwork when writing this novel. One thing that is clear though is that he is truly knowledgeable about the inner workings of palace life, most likely picked up as he researched for his non-fiction biographies.

In addition to her majesty, we are introduced to her dresser, or ladies' maid, a senior butler, the current equerry, an honest to goodness lady in waiting and a young woman who works in the Mews (that's where they keep the horses). These poor folks are kept running in circles as they attempt to find The Queen after her sneaky escape from the palace off on a whimsical journey to visit her former yacht. Some of the "staff" are nostalgic and passionate about their charge. Others are simply doing their jobs, trying not to get in the way or arouse too much attention. And of course, in the case of the lady in waiting, is resentfully ruing the demise of her own family's titles. While each are approaching their occupation from a different angle, the shared quest brings together incredibly disparate people, giving them a common cause and a chance to learn more about their peers. In a way, they are the more enjoyable part of the story, even more so than The Queen. Kuhn does an excellent job of relating their personas in a realistic light and has me wanting to learn more about the going ons in palace life.

As there are bits and pieces of factual information throughout the book, it is difficult to remember that it is merely fiction at times. Where this becomes especially challenging is when The Queen reminisces about past events such as the tunnel bombing and the death of Princess Diana. Kuhn most certainly can only be guessing as to her true emotions, but you do get the feeling that he portrays her majesty in an extremely optimistic light and does not necessarily speak of actual musings. One quirky characteristic that he does capture quite well though is The Queen's common practice of doing yoga. I have yet to actually find proof of it, but I am going to go ahead and assume he got this one right. The Queen doing yoga... hee hee...

Monday, March 11, 2013

It's Not Paranoia When It's True

Currently Reading: Homeland

Pg 171: "I stared into the beady glass eye of the webcam, thinking of the unknown party or parties who may or may not be watching on the other end. I wondered how the bug worked. Did it phone home every time I signed onto a network, telling the snoops that I was online and available for watching and spying? Did it store up pictures of me and logs of my keystrokes when I was offline, waiting for an opportune moment to dump all this stuff?"

Yet another sequel to a young adult novel, Little Brother, but this time the wait was totally worth it. I'm not saying the others I have blogged about have been bad, but seriously, Cory Doctorow gets it. What kept amazing me throughout the book was not only Doctorow's remarkable knowledge about any and everything geek, but also the way he understands teenagers. The way he related to how they think. What goes through their minds every minute of every day. And the most impressive bit is how remarkably hopeful and generous he is when giving this group of young adults a voice in his writing.

I mean, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what makes teenagers tick, and was fairly positive about leaving our future in their hands, but really, Cory takes the cake in this regard. He is so in tune with their preferences, noting on page 82, "... email was tedious. People expected you to answer all of it ... When it came to Twitter and Xnet, [one] could just take everything that had come in ... and mark it as read and no one could get pissed off ... but people who sent email took it personally if you didn't reply". See!  This is just one of the many thoughts that Marcus, our hero, has throughout the novel that not only makes him more real, but helps solidify Cory's grasp on this ever inventive group of citizens. They are the future and oh what a future it will be!

I guess I should explain a little about the actual plot and all that. Basically, it centers around a couple of themes ever ubiquitous in Doctorow books, both fiction and non. Personal property and the ever growing ability of governments and other agencies to take possession of it and use it against you. Marcus Yallow, AKA M1k3y in Little Brother, finds himself thrust back into the thick of things when an old friend from the past pops up and puts in his hands some sensitive information in his hands, to be distributed if something should happen to her. Needless to say, chaos ensues. Filled with public demonstrations, crazy network hacks and ingenious plotting, Homeland delivers a fanatic sequel to the oft-lauded Little Brother.

After reading, and really during reading the book, I couldn't help but have the exact same feelings that Marcus expresses in the quote provided above. I seriously looked at my webcam repeatedly while sitting on my couch, hungrily flipping through the pages. The all too real events in the novel have now got me rethinking my password creation as well as enthusiasm for big name cloud servers. Hmmm... do I have need to be worried? The point of the book isn't to cause paranoia, but more about educating the public to the ever decreasing privacy rights of American citizens. I have always figured, heck I've got no secrets. Bring it on! But of course whether or not the information you store is good or bad is not the point. The point is that our information and thoughts should not be freely accessible for others to use for whatever aims. Oh if only we could all just get along and respect each other like adults, but it seems that these admirable teenagers are the only ones who get it. Case in point, I couldn't leave this blog without including the following quote from page 86 (seriously there were dog-ears abound throughout my reading!):

There are important movers and shakers in the RNC who believe that the Earth is five thousand years old. And these are people who make their fortunes pumping sweet crude in Texas! You think they tell their geoengineers to only pump oil in places that accord with the Young Earth theory of creation?

So if you haven't been reading Cory Doctorow, you should. He writes fiction, nonfiction, blogs, is a guest contributor to numerous sites and magazines and well, there is no excuse not to look him up. For a quick peek at his awesome ideas, check out this guest post for Raincoast Books.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A rose by any other name...

Currently Reading: The Mirage

Pg 251: "You can turn it on its head, write it backwards or forwards, it stays the same."

Pg 308: "His nickname was the Quail Hunter ... Texas humor. The joke is, if you've got an enemy you want to get rid of, you invite him out shooting and mistake him for whatever game you're after. The Quail Hunter actually did that once."

Pg 369: "But the great majority, the body of the faithful, neither angels nor devils, but ordinary sinners: men and women trying to make their way in the world with God's help and forgiveness..."

Imagine a world not so unlike our own. This world has been shaken to its core by terrorist acts by fundamentalists claiming to be purging the globe of evil doers and heathens. They are backed by corrupt leaders in high governmental positions and while have a loyal following, their members do not represent the beliefs of the faithful overall. Do you recognize this story? Probably. But to burst your bubble, The Mirage is not about our world. It is actually an alternative universe in which the roles of major power brokers are reversed. The scariest part of all this is how seamlessly the events, biases and beliefs switch positions. The Mirage causes readers to take a step back and reevaluate their convictions, reaching deep into their hearts and calling them to take a true moral inventory.

The setting of The Mirage is present day Bagdad. This is the capitol city of the UAS (United Arab States). Several years ago, the citizens of Bagdad suffered an attack on two towers in their city by Christian fundamentalists. This has brought about a so called 'War on Terror', pitting the UAS against the CSA (Christian States of America) which represents the largest power holder in the 'Axis of Evil'. We follow along with several Homeland Security agents as they work to eradicate the insurgents and enemies of the state. Residents of the capital spend their nights watching 'Law and Order: Halal' or 'CSI: Damascus', hoping they aren't mistaken for seditious elements and brought in for questioning "in a human-rights vacuum like Texas". It is haunting how this story plays out, completely mirroring actions taken in our own present time by our own government.

In this novel, author Matt Ruff, proves to be a prolific storyteller as well as enlightening guide through an unconscious soul searching by his readers. What is new about his story isn't the plot-line itself, nor even the main characters. You still find yourself face to face with the powerful men in our own War on Terror (recognize the Quail Hunter?), but the roles are reversed. It is the Americans who are put on watch lists, hunted down and brought to task. It is the Arabs who are driven to "protect" themselves from diabolical plots by overzealous fanatics. Freaky but all too possible to the imagination.

I chose the above quotes for a few reasons, but mostly because they sum up the main themes in this book. The first refers to the symmetry of men. We all believe we are right, come at ideas from our own perspective, but even with this dynamic reversal, the innermost motivations remain the same. The second quote refers to an actual event in our own world and pauses one to consider the real motivations behind the event. The third quote brings up the idea of religion and how no matter where we are coming from, we believe our view is the correct one. The important part of this quote is that it could be referring to almost any religion and brings up the very real idea that while most religions have their fanatical adherents, for the most part, members are just trying to faithfully live a moral and happy life.

Please read this book through to the end and do not put it down due to initial bias. Once finished, take a step back and contemplate on our oft used stereotypes and the ever seductive group think. Maybe we aren't as different as we seem on the surface.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Getting a Handle on Things

Currently Reading: The Middlesteins

Everyone deals with life's dilemas in their own way.  Sometimes these coping mechanisms are constructive and yet others are so destructive that they bring their own set of problems with them.  I am currently working my way through The Middlesteins where the matriarch of this family has caused all its members to reevaluate their lives and attempt to make amends of a sort.

Edie is extremely obese.  She eats and eats and eats, never actually filling up.  Why does she eat?  It is a source of comfort emotionally.  Something she can rely on day in and day out.  Her daughter drinks too much and her son can only find solace in his work.  Edie's husband, Richard, leaves her out of frustration for lacking the ability to convince her that her life is about to be cut short.  Faced with these two stubborn in laws, their son's wife takes it upon herself to right all wrongs, formulating a diet and exercise plan for Edie and callously revoking grandchild visitation privileges from Richard.  As her plan progresses, the family finds themselves in even more heady circumstances where no one emerges the victor.

I began reading this novel after finishing up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry where Harold himself was engaged in his own method of coping over the loss of his son.  He is a bit opposite of Edie in that his solution comes in the form of walking from one end of England to the other, stopping only when absolutely necessary and denying himself many of life's most basic needs.  Harold's wife is baffled by his actions and finds herself forced outside of his pain, observing from a distance through news reports and brief postcards.  Harold becomes a small celebrity across the country, unwittingly inspiring others to walk along with him on the journey of self-evaluation and forgiveness.  Why is Harold walking in the first place?  Well because he received a letter from an old friend who once saved him from himself.  This friend is dying of cancer, but wanted to take one last moment to thank Harold for his kindness in the past.  Rather than simply posting a letter in return, Harold uses this occasion as an opportunity to reevaluate his life and come to terms with the aforementioned death experienced in his family.

These two novels both speak to the tenuous nature of life and how important it is to not only live each day to its fullest, but to appreciate the important relationships in one's life as well.  This seems to be a common theme amongst many books and while reading, it caused me to pause and consider the reason as to why this is.  Maybe it is because family and drama are all things that people can relate to.  Who hasn't ever found themselves at a crossroads at some point in their life, hoping to finally figure out something that can help make sense of things?  Even just dealing with the little things occurring in our lives each day requires some sort of system.  Some source of comfort in the storm.  So be it food or walking or routines, they can't all be bad, right?

Speaking of families and all that, I wanted to pass along a couple of other recs for some good reads which just happen to be a bit lighter than the ones I usually write about.  The Spellman books by Lisa Lutz are a hilarious series relating the lives and times of a family of private detectives.  I highly recommended looking them up whenever you are in need of an escape from your everyday woes.  Reading fun books, another coping strategies.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Books Are Awesome

Currently Reading: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Pg 91: "Books used to be pretty high-tech, back in the day. Not anymore."

How fitting is it that I end my oh too long blogging hiatus with a book about books!  I have been eagerly waiting for this one to come up in my library request queue and thankfully was not disappointed in the least.  Mr. Penumbra owns a quaint bookshop in San Francisco.  Clay, a young unemployed nerd finds himself outside the store observing its blessed help wanted sign.  After entering, Mr. Penumbra himself asks Clay about a book he loves and after giving a truthful answer about his childhood favorite and passing the "ladder test", Clay becomes the new night clerk at the mysterious emporium.

After a few weeks of lonely nights spent "borrowing" wifi from a neighboring business and staring at the cavernous ceilings, Clay discovers that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is not so much a store as it is a front for a highly secretive group of bibliophiles searching out answers to a century long mystery put forth by its founder.  The Unbroken Spine association has members all over the globe all slowly seeking the same truths yet in very different places.  Their ranks include "novices", "unbound" and finally, those who are furthest along on their journey, "bound" (like a book, get it?  Hee hee).  Clay is confused by their reluctance to try some more modern decoding techniques and takes it upon himself to bring them into the 21st century employing not only his own limited programming skills but those of his Googler girlfriend as well, not to mention a fun loving benefactor in the form of an old friend and a set maker from ILM who just happens to be his roommate.  The motley crew, along with Penumbra himself set forth to unlock the society's secrets and eventually discover a few intriguing things about themselves as well.  The enlightening combination of new meets old makes for an engaging story and the references to great literary masters and luminaries from the present day as well solidify the awesomeness that is this book.

One of the things that Clay and his friends find out is something that I too have come across in my readings.  Our currently lives often mirror those found between book jackets.  This book was a timely one for me because I recently returned from a weeklong trek to California which culminated with a conference in Clay's place of residence, San Francisco.  I loved being able to identify the locations described in the book as well as commiserate with the characters in the pitfalls and problems found throughout the city.

Also appropriate to my predicament was the idea of old technology being melded with new advancements.  Everyone always asks me why I don't have a kindle or other ebook reader.  A large part of it is the inaccessibility of ebooks through library loan programs, but more than that, it is my love for feeling the actual weight of a book in my hands and going through the actions of turning pages, going forward and backwards at my leisure.  Still, I am a huge fan of moving forward technologically and so love the idea of incorporating the two and using whatever tool works to solve the problem.

Another aspect of Robin Sloan's novel that struck home was the incorporation of Google and all its awesome programs.  As anyone who knows me can say, I am a bit obsessed with Google at the moment.  Take this blog for example.  Who hosts Blogger?  Why that would be Google of course.  Where did many of you get notification of this post?  Through Google+ or via your gmail account.  I use a Chromebook for work and have their browser set as the default on all my devices.  My booklist and other pertinent documents live on my Google Drive and my upcoming appointments, well they are reminded to me through my Google calendar.  So I suppose I was a bit jealous of Clay's girl Kat who has been working at Google for a few years and utilizes some of their amazing technology and programs to break the code and uncover the secrets of the Unbroken Spine.  So cool!!  OK.  Enough of the overenthusiastic lauding.  I'm off to go check my gmail and do a Google image search for the font Gerritszoon (which plays a prominent role in this tale).  Until next time, happy Googling!  Oops!  I meant reading! :P

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Currently Reading: Magnificence

"We know so little about our molecules, she thought, the molecules we are ... so little about them.  A proof they're in control: they guide our hands, they make us grow, they form our children inside our bodies - miracles come from them, all that has ever been, all that will be.  Meanwhile our conscious selves perform their rudimentary acts, those simple sums.  What shall I be, whom shall I love: those are the easy parts, behaviors that we call ourselves, they're only the icing, floral borders, all that we think we are is trivial while what we really are is not even known to us.  If there is a machine, a ghost in the machine - they always said the machine was the body, didn't they?  Philosophers? - but no!  The body's both of them, machine and ghost.  The body's not only the vessel but also its spirit, the body is visible but its animators impossible to see.  Materialism, she thought, sure - she might be a proponent.  But she didn't like the flatness of answers, the stolid and dull arithmetic of being, not at all!  Rather the glory of the unseen.  She believed in the ineffable, great mystery, great creation, only that it was lodged in molecules, in molecules, beyond the human ability to see."
Lydia Millet Magnificence Pg 208 - 209

So now you can see what I have been doing through that last long drought between my December post and the last one.  Magnificence, and the previous two novels in the trilogy, have entranced my attention, bringing to life exotic locales and quotidian problems all at once.

In How the Dead Dream, we are introduced to T, a materialistic young man, who suddenly finds his life altered by a random accident.  This accident brings into play one of the main themes of the trilogy, that of animals.  T hits a coyote with his fancy car, purchased with the funds garnered through savvy real estate dealings.  Suddenly faced with the ugly realities of death, T begins following a new path, seeking out endangered and pitiable creatures, and then striving to do right by them.  T's newfound caring attitude is not limited to animals alone, but also extends to the humans around him, mainly Casey, the paralyzed daughter of his secretary Susan.  After following T's remarkable transformation, the reader is left in the dark as the novel ends with T's disappearance into the jungles of a Caribbean country.

Seriously boggled by her employer's vanishing, Susan's husband Hal becomes our narrator and takes on the case, heading down to find T in the second novel, Ghost Lights.  Confused and out of sorts, Hal resorts to calling on the aid of the local people to help him find the missing man.  Despite being beleaguered by translation issues and problems at home, Hal ventures into the wild, coming into contact not only with the regional wildlife, but with foreign visitors from across the globe.  He finds himself struggling between responsibilities at home, midlife confusion, and the lure of the exotic.  Towards the end of the novel, Hal eventually finds T, but all is not well.  Again we are left with a cliffhanger with both men in dire straits in the shady capital city.

Spoiler alert!  The final novel in the trilogy brings the reader back home to California where Susan takes up the role of narrator.  T returns home, but Hal is with him in body only and not in spirit.  After a random altercation prior to coming back to the states, Hal was stabbed and dies, unfulfilled and emotionally alone.  Despite blaming herself for his death, Susan finds herself enthralled by her new surroundings due to the inheritance of her uncle's home.  As she navigates the new world of owning a historic home, Susan is constantly surprised, first by her daughter's wedding to T (although we all saw that coming) and then by her newfound responsibility of being caretaker for T's mother, who is plagued with dementia.  The old house comes with a molding collection of taxidermic animals from around the world.  These frighten and confuse Susan at first, but she finds herself falling under their spell and experiencing thoughts such as those quoted above.  This novel finally gives readers some closure with regards to the characters, but still leaves us reeling as we contemplate the awe inspiring ideas that Susan bethinks.

All in all, this trilogy was worth the hassle of having to request, renew and search out the proper reading order and I am oh so glad I took the plunge and read them all.  At the end of the saga, Lydia Millet proves that she is not only a remarkable story teller, but a giver of ideas too complex and important to ponder over while just reading.  I know I for one will be considering these characters and their experiences for quite some time.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Make Mine a Double

Currently Reading: In the Rooms

Pg 53: "I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else."

Rather than just having ________ Anonymous groups for addicts and other such troubled people, there really ought to be an HA group, as in Humans Anonymous.  It seems like everyone could benefit from going through the steps, participating in sharing, and just plain having a place to exist sans overt judgement for awhile.

In the Rooms follows the actions of Patrick Miller, a British literary agent who happens to find himself in New York, wading his way through life post-breakup with the American gal he crossed the Atlantic for in the first place.  While walking from one meeting to the next, he catches a glimpse of a reclusive American author and follows said writer to his final destination, an AA meeting.  Determined to find out why Douglas Kelsey dropped off the literary map, Patrick sneaks into the meeting despite not considering himself an alcoholic.  After "attending" a few meetings, Patrick finds himself with an olio of new friends, the exalted author being one of them.  Due to financial strains, mostly due to a divorce settlement, Kelsey decides to finally publish his latest work and asks Patrick to represent him.  What ensues is one disaster after another and Patrick finally realizes that perhaps he actually needs to be attending those meetings far more than he originally thought.  Thought provoking and filled with engaging characters, In the Rooms is a poignant tale that speaks not only to those with diagnosed diseases, but to anyone who has ever found themselves powerless over life itself.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I have attended 12 step groups myself and could relate to Patrick's feelings as he unknowingly stumbled along through the steps, failing to accomplish some and completely misunderstanding others.  While not necessarily a proponent of them all (particularly the higher power bits), they actually have some good aspects that anyone could benefit from.  Seeking amends, admitting when you are wrong, taking a moral inventory, all these are things we should each be doing everyday.  Even the whole serenity "prayer" is something I consider often when struggling with personal issues and self-esteem lapses.  Acceptance and then positive action seem to be the main themes of it all.

So to tie this whole post together, Patrick Miller eventually discovers that it may be a good idea to consider those things mentioned above regardless of the flaw or flaws needing to be redressed.  He is a character who grows and learns throughout the story, thus giving readers one of the main requirements of a good read.

PS: The 12 Step link above was found after actually crafting this post.  Hooray for someone humanizing them for us!!  But to be fair, here are the godly ones.