Friday, May 28, 2010

Uncle Sam wants to kill YOU!

Cass Devine is angry. Angry that her father forced her to join the military instead of going to Yale when he spent her college savings on his software startup. Angry that Senator Randy Jepperson drove her into a Bosnian minefield and ruined her military career. And especially angry that the government had just passed legislation increasing the social security tax 30% to pay for all of the baby boomers who are newly heading into retirement and are becoming increasingly dependent on the earnings of younger generations.

But, according to Cass, when the going get tough, the tough get blogging. So she proposes a plan - Voluntary Transitioning, she calls it - to her sizable population of under-30 blog readers, which calls for government incentives of legalized suicide for people over 70. If even only 20% of baby boomers followed through with "Transitioning," the social security system would be saved and the government might actually move out of its gigantic debt.

This book is entertaining, but sometimes it seems the satire is stretching too far, like when Cass (who works as the protege for the one-time protege of Nick Naylor, from Thank You for Smoking) is trying to boost the positive image of North Korea by hosting a celebrity golf tournament there. Still though, this book has many funny parts and is a nice, quick read. So maybe it is unrealistic and immoral, but it does make you think twice about social security reform.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In which...

J.K. Rowling crafts the absolute perfect resolution to the series, and then immediately disses her own brilliant work by tacking on an immature and indulgent flash-forward epilogue that I now just pretend doesn't exist when I reach the end of the book.

Harry, Ron, & Hermione flung out into the world. So crazy different.
Harry & Hermione without Ron. My favorite section of the book. No offense, Ron.
This book is really funny. Also.
"The Forest Again"
"King's Cross"

Reading this book is an intensely satisfying experience for those who've been following the series all along. Rowling's development as a writer is significant. She frees herself (and the reader) from any exposition at all. She breaks her own conventions right and left. And she proves that she knew all along what was going to happen. All the adventures and details end up being important. So she means it when she dedicates the book to "you, if you have stuck with Harry until the very end."

A word of advise, though: skip the epilogue. Rowling wrote it first, way back before any of the books. And it shows. And it's not necessary.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In which...

Dumbledore prepares Harry.

  • "The Other Minister" and "Spinner's End": great opening two chapters, with a graceful and ingenious recap of events in the previous five books, then a truly puzzling and ominous start to the action in Snape's house.
  • Sectumsempra
  • More teen angst
  • Dumbledore's theories/the Pensieve/HORCRUXES
  • Turning-Point-That-Must-Not-Be-Named
A Tangent:

When the movie came out, I read an article about the screenwriters having trouble adapting the book because, as they claimed, flashbacks are always boring and you can't have a movie filled with flashbacks. So, to those writers, the Pensieve journeys were just flashbacks. Too bad. They cut most of them out and actually added a gross action sequence involving the Burrow getting bombed and Harry and Ginny kissing in a cornfield. The Pensieve scenes are the most important in the book. They're the setup for Harry's task (Book 7). And - in case the fact that they contain tons of necessary information is not enough of an argument for keeping them - they are gripping. Okay, fine. Stupid writers.

My point about the movies, as we wait for the two Deathly Hallows films, is: the film adaptations have been sometimes saccharine (1 and 2), sometimes aesthetically brilliant and true (3), and sometimes tragically unfaithful, cutting details but that were both deeply meaningful and of vital importance in the unfolding of Book 7 (3, 5, 6). The fourth movie is the most faithful, I think, and is still funny, visually interesting, easy to follow, and rich. So what's the problem? Rowling, in the end, proved to be a thorough and thoughtful storyteller. These books don't have a whole lot of unnecessary elements, especially where the plot is concerned, and especially in the final three or four books. The films have tended to be rash and short sighted. We'll see how they reconcile the information they've left out (don't get me started) now that they do have to actually film the final book.

Nerd alert!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

In which...

We get used to the world after Voldemort Is Back.

  • Rankling injustice: This is the Teen Angst Book of the series, but Harry's adolescent frustration is only the beginning. He happens to be at the center of a confusing and unfair whirlwind that Rowling depicts vividly enough to inject much of Harry's angst right into the reader. See: Dolores Umbridge, irresponsible media, incompetent leaders, aloof Dumbledore. Plus Tonks is annoying.
  • McGonagall vs. Umbridge (supremely enjoyable; well done, Rowling)
  • Harry & the D.A.
  • Harry & the truth about James Potter (i.e. he was kind of a d-bag)
  • The Longbottoms
  • Exit Fred and George Weasley
  • Bellatrix Lestrange
  • Harry & Sirius (still can't believe it)
  • Harry & Dumbledore (in the penultimate chapter, Dumbledore answers (most of) Harry's questions, and throws in the most beautiful and devastating explanation for why he didn't make Harry a prefect: "I must confess...that I rather had enough responsibility to be going on with."
This book never stands out in my mind as one of my favorite in the series, but, as my highlights list proves, it includes lots of the series' greatest moments and developments. For some reason I always look back on it as "The one where they're stuck cleaning out curtains at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place."

But it's much, much more than that. Of course.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Easy as this book is to read, it can still pack a powerful punch. If that's what you're into.

Unlike Eggers' last injustice-laden non-fiction book, What is the What, which at times feels almost preachy, Zeitoun tries to be as simplistic and objective as possible. And, in large part, it is successful in this attempt.

The story goes something like this: Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a well-known and upstanding resident of New Orleans. He's got roughly 4 kids and a loving wife, Kathy. He was born in Syria. He is Muslim. When everybody flees New Orleans before Katrina hits, Zeitoun stays and his family goes. In the days after the storm, Zeitoun paddles around the flooded city in a canoe he bought several years beforehand, carrying out "God's work" by helping stranded dogs and trapped residents. But one day Zeitoun is arrested and sent to a maximum security prison under suspicions of looting and terrorism, both of which are very false. And yet he spends close to a month in prison, dehumanized and humiliated, while his family suffers not knowing where he is.

The objectivity of this story leaves me with two conflicting feelings. On one hand, this story makes me very angry. I found at times while reading that my heart would pound with frustration at the way this man was being treated and how many people were dealt with by enforcement agencies after the hurricane. One thought of the book that is constantly stressed is that the makeshift prison in the New Orleans greyhound station was built just days after the hurricane while people were struggling for survival. Instead of the enforcement agencies looking for survivors to help, they were building a prison. And the human rights violations - no phone calls, no reading of rights, etc. - told of in this prison and the maximum security prison told about later on, seemed unreal in a civilized country.

On the other hand, part of me wonders why Zeitoun didn't just leave New Orleans with his family to spare them this whole ordeal. Kathy, Zeitoun's wife, now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Zeitoun's children didn't know if he was alive or dead for 2 weeks. Was it really worth it, knowing the risks? Zeitoun felt as though he was meant to stay behind in New Orleans to conduct God's work, as though he were an angel. And yet it seems to me the most valuable work he could have done was to make sure he and his family were safe. But he didn't.

So I am torn between these two viewpoints, though I take from this story more of the first one than the second. Maybe the real purpose of his stay in New Orleans, if it was God's plan, was to have this book published to enlighten us all on the unjust and anger-inducing actions of our government's enforcement agencies in the midst of chaos. How nobody seemed to have a clue. Or to show us that it is always best to stick with family. Or that, even in the United States in 2005, it is possible for society to break down and martial law to take over. Or maybe Zeitoun was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This book is simple, but there is much to take away from it. I know I'll be thinking about it and dissecting it for awhile. It should be read.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Band of Brothers

I went into this one a little reluctantly after reading this little article about author Stephen Ambrose and his tendency to take liberties with history. Reading Band of Brothers, I was acutely aware of statements that were not clearly founded or that bordered on self indulgent. The descriptions of Captain Herbert Sobel (portrayed by David Schwimmer in the HBO series...not an easily forgettable character) are very biased. There is enough direct evidence in the book to condemn the guy as a poor leader/asshole. I don't need Ambrose to provide added commentary. This is a touchy area for historians, from what I've read. I can imagine it is a constant struggle to write a compelling, vibrant account of history without crossing over into editorializing. But it's certainly possible, and preferable. Ambrose's style in Band of Brothers seems a little indulgent to me, and it is at best distracting. There is no need, with such a tremendous story already there and such personal source material, for a color commentary from the author.

The book is about Easy Company, part of the 101st US Airborne division during WWII. Ambrose spent years interviewing the surviving members of Easy and draws heavily from these talks, as well as from journals and memoirs.

I ended up being most interested in supplementary writing Ambrose includes in the book. Private David Webster kept detailed journals throughout the war; his writing is featured often, and is a breath of fresh air. There are also lots of passages from two books that I'd like to read now:

Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division

(L. Rapport and A. Northwood Jr.)

The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (J. Glenn Gray)

The excerpts from The Warriors in particular offer a more thoughtful take on the questions brought up in war and soldiering. I'm more interested in this type of focus. Ambrose seems to jump back and forth from ill-structured descriptions of Easy's campaigns to grapplings with the band-of-brothers idea that I usually found to be rather generic.

I will hunt down a copy of The Warriors and read that. And then let you know what I think. In the meantime, Band of Brothers has some good parts, mostly thanks to Ambrose's sources, but as a whole was less than I'd hoped it would be.

"When the men come........."

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Whoever wrote up the description of this story on the inside jacket cover of this book should be fired from his/her job. Why Mr. Cleave allowed it in the first place is beyond me. That person managed to trivialize and almost seem whimsical what is, in fact, a tragic, sorrowful story of an event that affects the lives of a 16 year old Nigerian refugee, a British couple and their young son, Charlie, and how their lives intertwine. It's a story of the will to survive and to look beyond your fears to do so. At times humorous, it is overall a dark story and heart-breaking. I listened to this book (and happened to have the hard-cover at home too)....told in turn by Little Bee and by Sarah, the married British journalist whom Little Bee meets on a beach in Nigeria....the accents and narration were excellent. This story kept my interest right from the beginning. I'm glad I listened to many of friends who simply said "You've got to read Little Bee" and left it at that. Had I picked this book up at Border's without any recommendations beforehand and read the jacket, I would have put it back down on the shelf. Read this one!

Chris Cleave's other book, "Incendiary", is also an excellent read!!!!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gang Leader For a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Sudhir was a first year sociology grad student at the university of Chicago when he was asked to perform a survey at The Robert Taylor homes projects about urban poverty. The question he was to ask: How does it feel to be black and poor? He asks this question to one of the most powerful gang leaders in Chicago and is laughed away.

For Venkatesh, this seemingly small event would lead to over a decade of being entrenched with the gang and people of the Robert Taylor homes with an intimacy that most sociologists could only dream of. Sudhir became close friends with one of the heads of The Black Kings, a powerful gang whose primary export is crack(although they have a hand in every pocket and activity in the complex).

Sudhir and JT's friendship is complicated and so are the feelings that arise as you read Venkatesh's story. Though he does become friends with many in the building, he is using them to further his research and career. This is troubling to him and was troubling to me as a reader. As an observer he watches abuse, beatings, shootings, prostitution, drug use, and selling narcotics without stepping in or trying to stop it. Many ethical questions come up when reading this book.

The ethics of the community life at the Robert Taylor homes are very complicated themselves. For instance, the gang leader JT (who is by the way a college grad) justifies his selling drugs by saying that the gang does pour money into the community. Drug users are going to find a way to buy drugs no matter who is selling them, isn't it better for the black kings to profit off of that when they will put some of that money into helping the community? Or another example, Building managers take bribes from the gang and allow them to sell in their building. In exchange the gang promises to protect the residents of said building. Which makes sense when police and ambulances refuse to come (police mostly because they also have taken bribes too).

The world that Venkatesh shows us made me feel gutteral reactions of disgust, anger, and sadness throughout. He truly became friends with these people and his portraits of them and the choices they have had to make are often understandeable and bittersweet. Though at times there is an academic (and maybe a classist) detachment that made me angry, he does seem to truly care about the people he is studying.

Knowing that the projects were torn down shortly after this book ends is also strange. There is no doubt the projects begot poverty and violence, but thousands and thousands of people were forced into them where they made families and networks and then just as easily forced out of them. You are left with a deep sadness at the powerlessness the people have to determine their own lives and the well-meaning but misguided wealthy people who force them to go where they decide is best.

I would absolutely recommend this book as a fascinating look into the relationships gangs have with a community and the infrastuctual aspects of a gang economy.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls is a historical novel set in 1930's China that follows two fictional sisters over the span of about 25 or so years. We follow May and Pearl's lives from the vibrant, modern Shanghai of their youth to the war-torn Japanese occupied China they know as young adults and finally to their immigration to Los Angeles where they are sold as brides for American men.

I probably wouldn't have picked this novel off the shelf if I were in a bookstore, but a girl at work recommended/lent it to me and I thought (I have to read 50 books by november, ahhhhhhhhhhhh ILL READ ANYTHING TO FINISH ANYTHING AHHHHHHHH) I'll give it a try.

I appreciate the historical research that went into this novel as well as seeing the toughness of the immigrant experience. But in this novel, appreciation did not translate into enjoyment for me. After they left China, I found their new lives in America tedious to read about, and found myself fighting boredom to reach the ending. When I finally got to the ending and excitment and danger were about to ensue the book just ends abruptly. I have to say it just wasn't the book for me! (and my opinion is the only one that matters in most literary circles-so take that as you will)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nothing But Blue Skies

Thomas McGuane sums up this down-on-his-luck story so perfectly by quoting Yogi Berra before the tale even begins: "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

That's pretty much what Frank Copenhaver, ex-hippie, successful businessman/cowboy/fisherman/womanizer/neighbor voyeur does after he drives his wife to the airport so she can leave him for another man. His entire world is spiraling out of control and about to come crashing down around him.....all by his own hand. You'd call him a loser but you'd stop yourself because he's rather likable in that pathetic, I-can't-help-it-take-me-for-what-I-am kind of way. In parts laugh-out-loud funny, parts sad, but mostly a joy to read for McGuane's way of describing Frank's exploits in his midlife world. I'd recommend this book if you're ready to breathe in the fresh Montana air while following the wiggly path of this blind-sided man...all the while rooting for, hoping for a happy ending to put him out of his misery.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

City of Tiny Lights

Everything in the world worth knowing can be learned through the game of cricket. Thing is, this hooker ( shows up at this geezer's office looking for a friend,, who she's last seen bedding this MP Bailey at a Holiday Inn Suites in London. Thing is, this geezer Tommy Akhtar, the best Paki-immigrant-English-Ugandan-Indian private I in London, finds out Bailey's been offed by who-knows-who, but has the name of an infamous prospective terrorist Al-Dubayan in his recovered palm pilot what what what? Thing is, Tommy Akhtar gets up to his neck in finding out the bottom of this story - something the former mujahideen soldier has no business doing - and sets off a lot of fireworks in the process. Thing is, I don't know s__t about cricket. But I guess that makes me American.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Tortilla Curtain

In this book, bad things happen. A lot. I should have known before even getting to the story that it might end up this way - the book opens with a quotation from The Grapes of Wrath. And, in a way, this book serves as sort of a new age Grapes of Wrath. Only instead of Okies moving to California in search of the American Dream, it's Mexicans.

Candido and America Rincon live in a hidden lean-to shelter at the bottom of some canyon only a mile or so from the soon-to-be-gated community of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher (along with son Jordan and dogs Sachaverell and Osbert). America is pregnant. Candido is constantly looking for work to save up money so they can live in a place with a real roof. But when Candido gets accidentally thrown into the bushes on the shoulder of Canyon Road by Delaney's spotless white Acura, the lives of each spiral rapidly downward.

Dogs are lost. Walls are built. Open-minded liberals turn into full-fledged racists. The book is entertaining, truthful, and quite sad when you take a step back to look at it. And like Grapes of Wrath, it always leaves you wondering when there will be even a trace of good news.

Beat the Reaper.

In a word, this book was stupid. I get the sense that I could have written it for a long term project in 9th grade, just maybe without the fancy medical terminology and some of the violence. Since Bazell mentions in his bio that he is currently a doctor, I couldn't help but feel that I was trapped in his own mafia doctor fantasy land the entire time. Perhaps this book was a stream-of-consciousness daydream? Let's just say I'm glad the font size is big.

And word has it that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star in the movie version. At least that part we know will be dreamy.

Friday, May 7, 2010


I like Wilson. He's a people person. He likes people. Except homeless people. And people who work in data entry. Or IT tech. He also doesn't necessarily like people who won't talk to him in coffee shops. Or his ex-wife's immediate family (he sends poop in the mail to those kinds of people). Or the strangers that are raising the daughter he's never met. Taxi cab drivers. People in prison. Old people at the post-office. Actually, come to think of it, Wilson's more of a dog person. He sure does love his dog.


Dr. Taylor was a brain scientist who one day awoke to find that she herself was having a stroke in her brain. "How lucky," she thought to herself, "a brain scientist getting to study the inside of her own brain!" My Stroke of Insight is her personal account of what went down inside of her mind as her left-brain systems systematically went offline, and her right-brain systems systemically took the helm. This is a lovely book, definitely worth reading. But in case you're crunched for time, and would rather be moved by a twenty-minute talk (straight from the source), rather than a however-long-it-takes-you-personally-to-read-a-224-page-book (also, I guess, technically, straight from the source), then I give you this:

Actually, you should watch this anyway. It's really good. And then if you're still moved and curious, read the book.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Oh, but this novel made me bite my cuticles. Mary Beth Latham, mom of three teenagers, landscaper by trade, sails along happily in her life, focused on her perfect children, yet sensing that one of her sons may be heading toward what could be depression. Directing so much attention towards her son, in fact, that she's blind-sided when a violent act of such unthinkable measures occurs to turn her life inside out. Anna Quindlen is such a strong writer. I never feel like I've entered into classic 'chic lit' territory when I read her stories. This one is no exception. The characters could be living next door to me, they feel so real...and this tragic story, although heartbreaking, leaves you with the realization that there is always hope, even when that seems an impossibility. Well done.