Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Year of Reading

It is always a good feeling when you set a goal and then meet it. For example, my first goal of every morning is to actually get out of bed, and I'm usually successful. See, I start the day off by meeting a goal! The lesson in that, of course, is to aim low.

Reading a book a week is not aiming low for me. For my oldest, it would be backtracking. For book reviewers, tantamount to vacation. For me? Tough work! Not that I have not always been a reader. I love books. I like the way they look and feel (sorry Mr. Kindle), I like how they look on shelves, and clearly I like what they offer. Books (to borrow a cliche) take me to another world or help me understand my current world better. They bring new light to relationships, challenge conventional world views, and even strengthen my faith (and I'm not just talking books with a spiritual leaning).

So why was this a challenge? Having reached the ripe old age of 46 (now 47) I decided I was not reading as much as I wanted to, but the question was why not? I have four children, and even though two are now recent college grads, all together they take time. I have a lovely wife who cannot and should not be ignored. I work a full time job which calls for night hours on a regular basis, am involved with two non-profit boards, volunteer on the occasional community committee, and like to spend time collecting stamps and listening to accordion music (which would be a funny line if it was not true -- thus, it is just sad). Mix in watching my beloved Redwings whenever I can (and there are 82 games before post-season start), the occasional help I give around the house, and the carting of a 10-year-old to his plethora of extracurricular activities, the problem was clear -- lack of time. I'm a productivity kind of guy (ask my office mates and listen for the groan) so I knew I was making effective use of my time. The only solution? Make it a goal, thus making it a priority, and get reading.

My original idea was to reread a number of classics and dive into a few books I've been putting off too long. But life does not always go as planned, and that is usually a good thing. I started with a book I was reading out of self interest (Blink) and then jumped into a classic (Zorba), but before long I was all over the place. I found that by posting reviews on Blogcritics I could get free books (yes!) so I started requesting books which looked interesting and posting reviews. Needless to say, I was reading a range of books by authors I've never heard of, perhaps because for several it was a first novel. I also found myself reading a lot more non-fiction than I expected and on a range of topics I would not normally consider (e.g. surgery, eco-terroism). Friends and family recommended books, I found a great community of book bloggers who offered and inspired even more ideas, and I even moved into the social media world to share and learn more.

Being a data person, I thought I should figure out just what I read. Although the goal was a book a week, I actually managed to knock off 63 books in the 52 weeks. Here is a breakdown.

Books by men: 41 (65%)
Books by women: 22 (35%)

Fiction: 43 (68%)
Non-fiction: 17 (27%)
Poetry: 3 (5%)

U.S./British Writers: 52 (of minority background: 10) (83% -- 16% of total books by American minorities)
Other countries: 11 (17%)

Not surprising that most of the writers were from the U.S./Britain, although I was pleased that by adding American minorities and foreign writers I found that 43% of writers were non-white. Nothing against white people (I happen to be one), but I like to get other views on life and reading books by people who have had different experiences helps. I was surprised that the number of women was not higher since it felt like I was reading a lot of women writers, but the data does not lie. I think it was more the odds of what I was grabbing then anything since most of my favorite writers are women: e.g Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Danielle Steele (okay, I'm completely lying on this last one).

Only three books of poetry? Actually, that is less than I usually read. I felt a bit guilty reading poetry since it is "easy" to get through a book, so I found myself reading less this year. As a fan of poetry, this is disappointing, but I know that will increase now that the pressure to read certain books is off.

A few people have asked me what my favorite book is of the year. No answer. Jose Saramago completely caught me off guard and I loved both the novels I read. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is outstanding. And I reread Pride and Prejudice which is about as perfect as a book can get (although I'm currently rereading Sense and Sensibility and finding it even better than I have before). Jack Ridl's Losing Season was excellent and is the way to get non-poetry folks into poetry. I've also been asked about the worst book: Good Fairies of New York. Hey, I was stretching out on this one and I'm fairly sure I pulled some muscle in the process. Just not my style. And a collection of Walter Mosley short stories clumsily tied together in a novel was not pleasing either, and I really like Mosley.

So there is the data, a short analysis, and the rationale. But was it hard to accomplish? The fact that I finished 63 books in the year would clearly indicate it was not. Sure, there were a few tough weeks due to time, but no matter how busy, I found myself looking forward to and carving out time for reading. Even since I've finished my goal I'm still looking forward to reading, and now I can read some of the longer works I've had to avoid. Not that I read short books, but I do not like to be rushed with great writing. When work was stressful or too much was going on in the family, my book time was the balm I needed. I've rediscovered the pure joy of reading (and yes I know how that sounds). Just as important, I've also rediscovered the wide range of reading out there for me. Given my limited reading time in the past I was too selective, and as a result missed some great writing. So yes, I met my goal. I read my book a week. But I also met my unrealized goal of reintroducing the wealth of books back into my daily life.

Many of you have read my blog, commented on my Amazon or Blogcritic reviews, made comments in passing, or have simply given me encouragement. Thank you! It was much easier knowing many people were interested in my experiment.

I'll still be writing on my reading, but in different ways. I would love to hear comments so visit me at:
1) Amazon Reviews (and give me positive votes!)

...and now my blog is finished.

Happy reading!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Fifty-Two: The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (and 52B: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Week 52! Victory is mine! One year ago I began my quest to read one book per week for one year, a task I have now completed. True, for some people one book a week is not a big deal, but it was my attempt to get more reading back into my busy life. Have I succeeded? Suffice it to say that I look forward to my reading time nearly every day and my list of what I plan to read grows exponentially. But I'll comment on that next week in my final blog post in the project. I intend to reflect on how a year of reading has impacted me, look at what types of book I have read, and perhaps sketch out some future guidelines.

But first, the final book. Hey what happened to Jane Austen? Well, I did get a good start on Sense and Sensibility, but I realized I would need to read very fast to get the book finished. Then I realized I need to read another book for a session I'm leading next week, so I was forced to abandon Jane for now. I simply cannot read any of Austen' works quickly. I know all the plots and characters, so when I read now I do it for the exquisite writing style and to pick up all the nuances I have missed before. So I turned my attention elsewhere.

I was so taken by Simon Van Booy's Love Begins in Winter that I decided to go to his first collection of stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love. As you can see, Van Booy likes love, which says quite a bit in today's world. This collection garnered praise and gathered fans, but it lacks the consistent strength of Winter.  Many of these stories sound like an MFA student getting their bearings straight, and indeed Van Booy says that is when he wrote many of these (and won some awards). Some sound like typical slice-of-life scenarios looking for a big ending, and at times they work -- I'm just not too fond of this type of work.

Where Van Booy creates a unique voice is in his longer works. Winter really contains a couple of novellas, and in Secret Lives his slightly longer works offer more substance. "Where They Hide Is A Mystery" explores the life of a young boy whose mother dies and whose father grows more distant as a result. The somewhat stereotypic "wise Indian" character could be rewritten, but the story ends with a sense of hope which I like in Van Booy's work. So few writers today see any hope that it seems they are disconnected from the daily lives of most readers (and perhaps themselves). Van Booy sees potential in life.

One of the short stories that also accomplishes this is "Save as Many as You Ruin," which is one of the better titles I've seen in some time. Here we see someone quickly open himself to the possibility of happiness despite the tragedies he has experienced. That openness to happiness is a quality too few writers and people in general are open to.

Van Booy is apparently publishing his first novel in 2011 and I'm anxious to read it. The novel length will let him leisurely develop his characters and plot, which is where he seems at this best. In the meantime he is putting out three different works of philosophy which he has edited (and he has a children's book). To learn more visit his website.

The Sign of Four
My revisiting of the Sherlock Holmes opus continues with the second novel featuring the great detective. Here Holmes is caught up in a mystery which combines horror with crime, and where we meet Mary Morstan whom Watson is engaged to by the end of the story. (For those who saw the recent blockbuster Holmes film, that is the name of Watson's fiancĂ©e of the film). The story moves quickly and even includes a "high speed" boat chase -- as high speed as coal-burning boats get. Holmes' deduction powers get the full treatment, although they do include some racist stereotypes of aborigines which reflect the author and time more than intelligence. The story drags at the end as a flashback explains the backstory, but there is less patience since we know ending already. In the short stories Doyle manages to avoid this clumsy technique in most cases, or at least keeps them shorter. Still, all in all this is another fine read.

Up Next
I'm finishing up Sense and Sensibility and then I have a range of books to read. But next week will be my last blog post trying to sum up the year of reading.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Fifty-One: Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (and 51B: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle)

Einstein is often described as much as an artist as he is a scientist. His picture adorns the walls of many college students, quotes show up in a range of contexts, and most people seem to know some unusual fact about this unique and brilliant man. But what drives his work, especially as it relates to time?

Physicist Alan Lightman plays with this question in Einstein's Dreams, his 1992 "novel" centered around Einstein's dreams as he works on his theory of time. Of course, we do not know what Einstein dreams, so Lightman imagines the different scenarios we can play out with the concept of time.

The book is split into 30 short chapters each exploring a different concept of time (see below for the full listing). They are tied loosely together by "Interludes" where Einstein interacts with Michele Besso, a real life friend of Einstein. I put "novel" in quotation marks since this book raises the issues of what constitutes a novel, although I'm not going to explore that at this time. While the general concept ties this book together, this is more a collection of short explorations on time and its possibilities. 

Many of these are interesting, but Lightman stops at raising ideas without exploring the outcome. Where this book could work best is for aspiring writers who want an idea to build on. For example, in "20 May 1905" he envisions a world without memory. People create life books in order to write down what happens so they can "remember" the next day. On the one hand there is the challenge of remembering what address you live at (and thus they write it down), yet you also get to experience your first encounter with your husband or wife as new every night. Lightman does this throughout, showing how time does impact our existence in every way.

In "11 June 1905" he explores what is in some ways the opposite, a life in which people cannot conceive of a future. From the simplicity of a man watching a storm approaching, but cannot fathom that it will rain (since that is the future), to a scene of two men embracing goodbye over and over since they cannot imagine seeing one another again. Lightman raises the issue of how does what we think about the future impact the present.

Apparently this book is popular in universities, and it is easy to see why. The book raises questions which lead to discussion, although he himself fails to explore the issues. If you want a classic "dorm room midnight discussion," just grab this book and read a quick chapter aloud. Professors can sit back and let students discuss the possibilities in class with little more direction -- that is where the book succeeds.

But on its own the book does not offer enough. Lightman could have made this book stronger by covering less, but in more detail. Borges and Saramago take similar themes and give them more consideration, and as a result offer more to the reader. But if you wish to have questions to ponder and need something to start the thinking, Lightman's book is the answer.

Lightman himself sounds like an interesting person. He is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. In addition to his writing, he is the Adjunct Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written nearly 18 books, and they split between literature (fiction/poetry), science, and essays. Einstein's Dreams was his first novel and it received a great deal of praise, despite my somewhat tempered reaction. It would be interesting to see where his later work has led him.

You can read more about him at his website.

Here is a snyposis of all the chapters as explained on an academic website:
See full information here

14 April 1905 (8)

Time is a circle; individual experience endlessly repeats itself

16 April 1905 (13)
Time is like a flow of water, sometimes moving backward

19 April 1905 (18)
Time has three dimensions; each act has three possible outcomes

24 April 1905 (23)
There are two times, mechanical and body

26 April 1905 (28)
Time flows more slowly the farther one is from the center of the earth

28 April 1905 (33)
Time is absolute, an infinite ruler

3 May 1905 (38)
Cause and effect are erratic; at times effect precedes cause

4 May 1905 (43)
Time passes, but little happens

8 May 1905 (55)
Time is captured in its last moments, the end of the world

10 May 1905 (61)
Those trapped in time are alone, and no one is happy

11 May 1905 (66)
The passage of time brings increasing order

14 May 1905 (70)
Time stands still

15 May 1905 (75)
There is no time; there are only images

20 May 1905 (80)
People have no memories

22 May 1905 (85)
The world is a world of changed plans, leaving many things incomplete

29 May 1905 (90)
Time passes slowly for people in motion, thus everything moves

2 June 1905 (102)
Time flows backward

3 June 1905 (107)
People live just one day, but that day may be an eternity

5 June 1905 (112)
Time is a sense like taste

9 June 1905 (117)
People live forever, dividing into two populations: Laters and Nows

10 June 1905 (123)
Time cannot be measured; it is a quality

11 June 1905 (128)
There is no future; time is a line that terminates at the present

15 June 1905 (133)
Time is visible; one can step into the future or remain in the present

17 June 1905 (138)
Time is discontinuous, containing gaps and pauses

18 June 1905 (148)
There is a Great Clock in the Temple of Time

20 June 1905 (153)
Time is local; clocks separated by distance tick at different rates

22 June 1905 (159)
Time is rigid; every action and thought is determined

25 June 1905 (163)
Time and event may be copied infinitely with different futures

27 June 1905 (167)
In a world of shifting pasts, the past may be firm or forgotten

28 June 1905 (172)
Time is a nightingale, fluttering and flying, pursued by those who would stop time in a bell jar.

A Study In Scarlet
My revisiting of the Sherlock Holmes canon goes to the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, which features the immortal greeting of Holmes to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive") and the beginning of a long relationship between two friends. It is interesting to note that the 1887 appearance of this short novel did not exactly capture the public's attention. The next novel, which I'm about to start, is The Sign of Four and that one did not do much better. The interest arose with the short stories, of which the initial ones were later pulled together in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I reviewed last week.

A Study in Scarlet is interesting on many levels. The most striking part of it is the fact nearly a third of the book does not involve Holmes or Watson, instead focusing on a father and his adopted daughter who meet up with Brigham Young and the Mormons in the American West. An entire story builds in this section which includes Doyle's somewhat patronizing and stereotypic portrayal of American Indians, and the Mormons take a strong beating (in fact, quite literally). When I was younger and reading these stories all the time I began skipping that section, but this time I really paid attention and it shows that Doyle can create a suspenseful plot line, which he often fails to do in some of the stories. The dialogue is at times contrived and sentimental, but considering the time it was written this is not shocking.

Holmes comes off how I best like him: intelligent, self-absorbed, egotistical, and rude. Okay, not a recipe for a friend, but what excels here is his honesty. His is smarter than most so why not say it? I'm sure some Sherlockian literature in the recent past has tied his behavior to Asperger's Syndrome, and that would be interesting to read. He seems to clearly deal with Aspergers; it is what also allows him to focus so completely on a matter at hand.

What surprised me a few times was the mention of him being young. Watson is by now a doctor with time in Afghanistan and is likely around 30, so Holmes may be in his late 20s. Of course, reading this as a child I would see that as ancient, but as an old man now I see his youth for being just that -- youth. As the stories grow so does his age, and there is a maturing of the young, brash detective in the later works.

Next Up
The final week approaches and I end my project with Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Fifty: Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (and 50B: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

I finally make it to Anne Tyler, one of my favorite writers who does not get the critical support she deserves. Okay, so she has a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Award for The Accidental Tourist (an excellent book), but she has many other novels which deserve attention. 

Tyler's most recognizable feature is her unique characters. To say many of her characters are off center is being polite. Many are just plain strange, but almost always in an appealing way. Tyler loves people, especially those who choose to approach life with their own unique view despite what society tells them. She is not naive about people, and the eternally unhappy person usually makes an appearance, but it is the strange and wonderful which capture her attention.

Celestial Navigation is Tyler's 5th novel, published in 1974 -- long before praise started coming her way. It focuses on Jeremy, a 38-year-old bachelor who has lived with his mother while rarely leaving their house. At the outset we find the mother has died and Jeremy's sisters enter the picture. The mother had turned their house into a boarding house, so Jeremy has company, but over the years he strays less and less from home until he is nearly confined inside. He is an artist with a studio on the top floor, and although at times he is a teacher to some budding artist, his detached and strange ways usually finds them leaving.

In the midst of all the changes comes Mary. She has left her husband and moved to Baltimore with her daughter to be with her new lover, but that eventually ends. Jeremy, much to his surprise, falls in love. Despite his strange ways and unattractive appearance (and Tyler excels in this description), she falls for him as well. In one of my favorite lines, after she tells him no to his marriage proposal, he shocks with the casual line: "What hope do you have for a better life, if you keep on saying no to everything new?"

They have a brood of children and Jeremy begins to make small excursions out and becomes successful as an artist. But now that he has Mary and all he wants, he finds himself drifting once again. The title refers to how Jeremy gets through life, by following his path in the heavens. He steers by a force unseen by others and unknown to him, but it is a path nonetheless.

Tyler writes the book from the perspectives of many characters. Only when doing it from Jeremy's perspective do we get more of a 3rd person narrative. This inconsistency would get Tyler bad marks in a creative writing program, but it works because Jeremy lacks the self consciousness of other people. Tyler takes us through 13 years of his life and we see people sail in and out of his life, but he continues on as before. Characters like Jeremy serve well to make us reexamine our own choices, but Tyler does not use them as foils for our own self interest. Her unique people are to be accepted and even treasured for who they are individually. 

Where Tyler is sometimes criticized is for romanticizing characters and lives (okay, she is also criticized for not having much in the way of sex in her books, but I always thought that was a stupid thing to say about anyone). But Tyler is not romantic about her characters, as this novel will show you, although she is hopeful for them. If that constitutes a weak writer, I hope she continues losing strength!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a great collection of stories which I've read many times since I discovered Sherlock Holmes in 5th grade. I actually read another collection first, but this is the first collection of short stories and one most people are familiar with. I've not read all of them together in quite some time and I certainly have a new eye. At times I was frustrated by Doyle's failure to bring clear closure to a story, and some hardly seemed mysteries at all. However, Holmes is as difficult as ever as a person, which makes him all the more interesting. He does some things for show early on, but his love of deduction is what really drives him. These are well worth the read.

Just for my own fun here is my ranking of the stories (Holmes fans are always ranking stories!).

1)"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
2)"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
3)"A Scandal in Bohemia"
4)"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
5)"The Five Orange Pips"
6)"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"
7)"The Man with the Twisted Lip" 
8)"A Case of Identity"
9)"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
10)"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
11)"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
12)"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

This will probably change next time. Usually Red-Headed League tops the list.

Up Next 
So close! Just two more weeks to reach my goal. As I said before, Jane Austen gets the final week. But for next week, my busiest week of the year in which I dare not fail in my goal when so close to the end. A friend of mine (who recommended an earlier book) suggested Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams as a short, but not light book. My eldest also warned me that it is not a quick read, but I take heart that I'll manage.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Forty-Nine: All the Names by Jose Saramago

If you follow my blog, you'll know I'm open to changing my mind. Such is the case this week when I decided I liked Saramago's book from last week so much, I would try another one. So this week I moved on to All the Names, which features an excellent cover (and no, you can't judge a book by its cover, but then again...).

I am again impressed by Saramago's work and will make a point of reading more of his work. In this novel we follow Senor Jose, a clerk at the Central Registry (where all births, marriages, and deaths are noted) who suddenly decides to track down a woman whose card of information strikes him for some reason. The search takes this lonely 50-something man into terrain for which he is not prepared, yet he continually finds newfound courage with every step.

Saramago's setting is unidentifiable in terms of place, time, or even reality. There is an otherworldly feel to the story, and even the Central Registry is out of touch with its own time. We know there are answering machines and cars, but the Central Registry has one phone and everything is written down by hand. The description of the Registry is fascinating in its description of order without reason, creating a head person (the Registrar) who is almost godlike in his existence.  Saramago creates an atmosphere which is dark, oppressive, and ruled by fear. This setting makes the end of the novel (which I will not reveal) even more surprising.

Have recently read Borges and reaching back in time to Kafka, there are clear echoes of both of these writers. The mystical and the absurd colliding to cast a light on our existence, depressing as it may be. In the end I cannot say "what this book is about," but I will doubtless be pondering it for sometime.

In my last blog I mentioned Saramago's writing style, which appears here as well. I found the following description of his writing in a NY Times article which sums it up well:
Saramago’s most distinctive trademark is his punctuation, or rather the lack of it. His fictions are constructed in run-on sentences disrupted by only commas, a flood of prose in which narrative observation, individuals’ thoughts and dialogue go unmarked. In addition, many of his books refer to one another, and all the characters talk exactly alike, giving their conversations the feel of an internal monologue. It is as if a continuous reel of a silent film were being projected in a movie theater that is empty save for one extremely garrulous spectator. 

You can read the Article in The New York Times if you want more, or even read their review of the book in question here:New York Times Book Review of All the Names

Saramago himself seems to be an interesting character. He starting writing late in life (his late 50s) and is a committed communist and atheist who may be one of five people left in the world thinking Stalin had the right idea. He is described as hard to like, but apparently is hard to stop talking to once he starts.

Between the two I still go with Death with Interruptions, but also recommend this work as well.

Next Up
Okay, I really don't know. Three weeks left and the last two are figured out. I'll just have to surprise you next week.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Forty-Eight: Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

Again I am reminded of why this idea of reading one book per week is such a good idea. I find myself stretching my usual reading and looking for something new. This week it is Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Although familiar with the name, I had never read anything by him. However, the premise of this book caught my attention and a week later I have a writer whose work I'll be pursing for some time.

The book focuses on the results of death's (note the small "d") decision to stop having people die at the start of a new year. This death (thus the small "d") is only responsible for people in one country, so of course this  creates all kinds of interesting scenarios. At first people are ecstatic about their new found eternal life, but then reality sets in. People do not die, but they do not stay healthy. Those on the brink of death stay on the brink of death, and people who should die as results of accidents just live on in pain. Nursing homes suddenly find themselves with no room for new customers and undertakers begin specializing in burying pets (non-human deaths are handled by another death). People handling life insurance are the most creative in handling the crisis as they figure out a way to get people to buy their product with promise of an early payout. Even a newly formed "maphia" finds business in transporting the dying across the country's borders so that people can die.  Of course the government (a monarchy) goes into crisis mode with calls for action from several groups, not the least of which is the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic I found this aspect most interesting. Saramago is not kind to Christianity in this book, but he does raise interesting points about the what the lack of death would mean to Christianity. Mine is a faith based on the overcoming of death, so when death ceases to exist, does faith lose its meaning?

What Saramago does in this novel is reintroduce the concept of death in society. While most of us work hard to put off the inevitable end, Saramago reminds of the natural and important role of death. He could have stopped at this point and been set, but he takes the concept a step further. Death reintroduces herself (yes, death is a woman) by contacting the government and announcing the return of death. But now, she'll send everyone a letter one week ahead of time so they can prepare.

At this point Saramago turns his attention to death herself, and the result is fascinating character who works without knowledge of why she does what she does. He plays on the all the stereotypes by having her be a skeleton dressed in a robe, the scythe nearby in her plain room where she writes the letters to those who will die. He acknowledges that her femininity is a traditional interpretation. But death's existence is thrown off when one letter refuses to be delivered. In other words, someone is refusing death, even though he does not know it. Saramago then takes us into death's response to this turn of events, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot.

Saramago's novel is interesting for the wealth of philosophical questions it raises, but it is his writing style which appealed to me the most. A glance at the novel shows solid pages of text since all his conversations simply flow together in the paragraphs, yet without confusion on the speaker. Sentences, ignoring grammatical restraints, can go on for nearly a page at times. Like many contemporary novelists, Saramago is also not shy about addressing the reader. But this is not simply a post-modern experiment. The writing is plot driven and the flowing writing style moves us along smoothly throughout. What may surprise many (including me) given the plot is the amount of humor is the novel. Both the characters and the author recognize cliches and stereotypes, but embrace them with humor instead of avoiding them.

Saramago has created a solid novel throughout. A great premise, sense of humor, raising of good questions, and outstanding writing let me know why he won the Nobel Prize. I'll be searching out more of his works soon.

Up Next
I only have four weeks left in my experiment and I'm feeling unnecessary pressure on what to read. I think I'll finish with Jane Austen, which leaves just a few other books to chose from. Plus, in three weeks I have a week of 18 research papers to read, a daughter's college graduation to consider, and our local Tulip Time festival in which I am involved with daily this year. So what to read now? Anne Tyler definitely needs to get in the mix so one her novels may be next.

A few people have asked if I'll continue the blog after I'm done with my year. I've decided not to, although I'll continue to read a lot and write on Goodreads with some postings on Amazon. If you are on Goodreads (and
 I recommend it) you connect with me at

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Forty-Seven: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Decided to go to the ultimate classic this week so I read The Great Gatsby for the, well, I have no idea how many times. I was required to read it for class in high school, college, and grad school. In between I've read it several times on my own and still find it a welcome book to return to. I read it this time since I was thinking of having a student read it who is taking my writing class as an independent study. She is from outside the U.S. and does not have a great deal of experience with American literature so I thought this classic novel would be a good place to start. Not so -- there is much to explain here of U.S. history, and most the characters are not ones I want to represent the U.S.

I found myself wondering why I like this book. One of the things I do not like about Hemingway is that his characters are often whiny, self-absorbed Americans. The same could be said here of Fitzgerald, although the narrator Nick Carraway has a better sense of self than most. The character that makes this all work is Gatsby, a self-made person in all senses of the word. He creates his own history, his own rules, his own goals, and even his own money. He is the American story taken to the extreme and not one we always like to claim as our own. People are enthralled with the character he has created, but not with him. One of the great scenes is of the nearly empty funeral. In the end he is left with his father, Nick, and one of the party goers. The rest see Gatsby's value in what he offers, not in who he is.

This approach to people finds support in today's world where "contacts" replace "relationships." In the business world you are encouraged to build contacts, but really we do better both personally and professionally with relationships. Gatsby uses his contacts as well, all in the goal of getting Daisy back in his life. That is perhaps one of the saddest themes we pull out of this book, that of using others. But is what all the characters do -- use others for their benefit. There seems to be little enjoyment of others in themselves, but only in what they provide, be it money, sex, status, comfort, or entertainment. Gatsby uses others and allows himself to be used in his search for Daisy. What is surprising is how willing all these characters are willing to work in such a fashion.

Which returns me to the question of why I like this book so much. To begin with, it is extremely well written. A relatively short book, it takes words, sentences, and plot seriously enough not to waste time. Fitzgerald quickly draws strong, recognizable characters and creates tensions on several levels. Add to that the romanticism of the 1920s and you have an irresistible draw. But if you look closely (or to be honest, not even that closely), you'll find Fitzgerald does not offer the romantic view of the decade he calls the "jazz age." Instead, this is a surprisingly moralistic look at human nature's worst side and the fall that will surely accompany it. A moralistic novel? Now that is American.

Read more about Fitzgerald at F. Scott Fitzgerald Page.

Up Next 
I already started and am enjoying Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions. He won the Nobel prize in 1998, but I've never read anything by him. His writing style is unique and challenging, but also intriguing.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Forty Six: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (and 46B: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

I first reviewed Hamid 10 weeks ago with his novel Moth Smoke, which I enjoyed. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a more recent work published in 2007 and his maturity shows. This is an outstanding, creatively imagined story which manages to give many of us non-Islamic folks a glimpse into what being Islamic in the U.S. must have been like after 9/11.

The story takes place in Pakistan (Lahore) as Changez, once a successful immigrant in the U.S., relates his story to an unnamed American. From a privileged, but poor family, Changez manages to get into Princeton and graduate with honors. He lands a highly sought after and highly paid position with a New York "valuation" firm which tells companies what they are worth. He loves New York, falls in love with an American woman, and has more money than he ever anticipated.

But after Sept. 11Changez not only finds himself being viewed differently, but begins to view himself differently as well. He suddenly decides to grow a beard which draws even more attention to himself and begins to question his role in the U.S. In the meantime, his relationship with the woman he loves changes for reasons not related to Sept. 11, but also makes him question some essential questions.

While the unnamed and unheard American in the cafe could be a mere foil, Hamid manages to create an interesting character we know only through the eyes of Changez. The American's own visit to Pakistan is questionable and Changez works hard to assure the man of his safety. By the end of the novel you are surprised to find yourself in a page-turning, suspense-filled plot (and I'm not giving away any endings).

Hamid's narrative is tight and well controlled. At times I questioned the strange romantic relationship, but at the end of the novel we see that it serves to show us another side of the U.S. and Changez's relationship to it. It also teaches about Changez as a person, although we can see how he may appear distant to others. His work at the "valuation" firm is a high stakes position in which his answers determine the fate of others. When this begins to bother him he is encouraged to separate himself from the results since anyone could produce them -- it is nothing personal and he does not make the decisions. But Changez recognizes his role in the process.

It is this role which we build out upon as Changez begins to see the role he plays in other areas of his life. What he recognizes is that passivity is not an option. To use the existentialist formula, "not to choose is to choose."  In other words, he moves from passivity to action which seems to surprise many, including himself. But is he really changing or simply becoming for himself? That is up to the reader to decide.

Regardless of the answer, Hamid's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand more of what is happening in the world today. There are no simple answers, but there is insight.

The Lightning Thief

Not a lot to say on this one. It is a YA (Young Adult) book and I've not read too many to compare this one to. At a glance it seems like Harry Potter, but with the Greek Myths in the U.S.. Young boy with special powers he was not aware he had, goes on a quest to essentially save the world along with another boy and a girl, and saves the world but gets a hint of something more sinister at work (here comes Kronos and the sequels).

But despite all that, I liked the book. My ten-year-old read it and wanted me to read it before we go see the movie version. He enjoyed it and it has sparked his interest in the Greek myths as well. Riordan has fun imagining the Greek gods and demigods into today's world (Mars is a motorcycle man) and he has a sense of humor. Worth reading if you like YA books.

Next Up
Not sure and I really should know by now. It has hit me that I have just six weeks left in my goal to read a book a week for a year, and I'm surprised how quickly it went. I had plans to read a bunch of classics, and while I've read many, I've also stretched my reading quite a bit. So I'm debating several books as I near the end of my quest, but relax when I remind myself that I'm still allowed to read after the year is up.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Forty-Five: The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ (and 45B: Walter Mosley's Fortunate Son) and (45C:Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime)

Note: First, hope you enjoy the new layout. Second, I'm updating my reading blog and Goodreads info. on Facebook as well.

Religious, and specifically Christian, books can be a challenging lot. On the one hand there are plenty of great theological texts to read (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Rahner, Barth, etc), but suffice it to say they are not the type of book you curl up with at the end of the day. On the other hand, there are too many "Christian-lite" books (I'll be nice and not name names) which touch on Christian themes, but lack the depth to really challenge the faithful.

With his rather bold title, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, SJ looks like he would fall in the latter category. But happily, what we find here is a treatment of the Christian faith (through a Jesuit lens) which is not difficult to digest, but will challenge the reader to reexamine their stance toward faith. This is not just wordplay when I say "stance toward faith." Martin honestly and respectfully engages readers who may be atheists or agnostics, as well as any Christian still examining their faith. He does note that much of what he offers from his Jesuit life could be adopted by non-Christians. But give Martin credit for not being embarrassed of his faith and making a strong case for Christianity.

Martin acknowledges his own wordplay when he addresses his title. "It's not a guide to understanding everything about everything (thus the Almost). Rather, it's a guide to discovering how God can be found in every dimension of your life." The essence of the book is that every aspect of your life is spiritual -- faith is not just concerned with your thoughts on God, but what you say in those emails to a coworker. This is the first of four definitions that comes from Jesuit spirituality, namely, that everything in your life is important. The second idea is "contemplative in action," in which Martin outlines how a contemplative life translates into an active life. This theme plays a major role throughout the book as Martin explores how those of us who are not Jesuits can still actively incorporate spirituality into our lives. Third, not only is everything important, but God can be found everywhere. This carries the theological phrase of incarnational spirituality, but the idea is simple. Finally, many readers may be surprised to hear that people who pledge obedience see their spiritual life as one of freedom and detachment from distracting influences as opposed to a set of rules to follow.

Martin spends a great deal of time looking at the role of prayer in our lives. Again he is not afraid to challenge, as he does with the conventional excuse of "busyness," when it comes to why we find prayer challenging. One of Martin's strengths is that he understands the challenges of the working world. He came to his own faith decisions after a, ahem, active collegiate experience and after having a successful business career. He knows what many people deal with daily, and although not the head of a family, he understands the stresses the life of a parent has to contend with in addition to finding prayer time. But he points out that all relationships need nurturing, and our relationship with God is no different.

He offers several options, but his focus on "The Examen" is the most enlightening. This Jesuit prayer is central to the Jesuit way of life. Created by the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius Loyola (and Jesuit spirituality is often called Ignatian spirituality), this prayer takes a person through five steps at the end of the day. The prayer focuses on the course of the day. In Martin's version (and we learn throughout that Jesuits are a pretty flexible lot on faith issues) we start with gratitude for what went well, and then review all actions of the day. When we recall events we are sorry for we have reached the third step, which leads naturally to seeking forgiveness, step four. Finally, we seek God's grace for the coming day.

Simple as it sounds, and it is simple, the prayer reinforces that idea of all aspects of your life are important to God. All our actions should reflect our faith, and when we fail, we should seek to remedy our wrongs. Regardless of one's faith inclination, a thorough review of the day and an accounting for one's actions is bound to create opportunities to move forward.
Martin's explanations of the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty are enlightening in not only understanding what those vows mean, but what they have to do with the rest of us. No, he is not promoting worldwide chastity in the normal sense, but he does argue that loving chastely lets those even in sexual relationships realize there are many ways to express love. In a sex-obsessed culture, this rather obvious line of thinking is desperately needed. 

This is how Martin works throughout the book. He explains how Jesuit's think and why, and then looks to tie it in with everyday life for the non-Jesuits of the world. While it sounds simple, it is challenging in both content and translation to life. If you just want an easy "feel good" book or "10 steps to live like a Jesuit," look elsewhere. If you want to think about faith and how it underlies your life, this is the place to start. But not to worry, Martin does all this with a sense of humor. He knows when some thinking sounds funny, and he points it out. He loves to tell Jesuit jokes, almost always at the expense of Jesuits, and the book is filled with real-life stories to illustrate his points. How often do you get to read a priest talk about being overwhelmed by sexual obsession just weeks before ordination? Martin does, and he spares himself little in the telling of tales. But his honesty and humor make all this thinking that more fun. And after all, if we cannot enjoy our faith, we must be missing something.
Martin also keeps a friendly, informative Facebook page where you can read about his other comments on life.

I dedicate this week's blog to my daughter who just accepted a placement to volunteer for one year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. I'm proud of her! Now she has to read this book.

Walter Mosley's Fortunate Son
Mosley is at times a "guilty" read, but often just a well written story. Fortunate Son falls more under the "waste of time." I've enjoyed Mosley's past forays into non-mystery writing, but this one was stretched with unbelievable characters who hint at more but never deliver. Read something else by him.
Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime 
I read this again for class. My review of it was in November.

Next Up
On the lighter side I'm reading "The Lightening Thief," a young adult novel now made into a movie. My 10-year-old read it and liked it. He wants me to read before we head off for the movie version, so I'm getting into it now. Quite enjoyable! My "real" book will be another by Mohsin Hamid called The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Forty-Four: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

I understand the temptation. The food is cheap, tastes good, is ready on the fly, and fills you up. Eric Schlosser gets it too -- he loves the fries. But after reading Fast Food Nation you'll never look at the golden arches the same way again. That may be a good thing.

If this was just a book telling you how horrible fast food restaurants are to people, it would have disappeared shortly after its 2001 publication. But it became a New York Times Bestseller and was even turned into a film because Schlosser goes beyond mere name calling. In fact, one of my favorite lines comes at the end of the book. "The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are business men. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it." In other words, while he documents the overwhelming marketing pressure created by these companies (especially towards children), he also notes we have a say. 

Schlosser is a journalist and he has done his research (the book includes nearly 60 pages of supporting notes), but he is not looking for the headline. There is no single culprit, no single problem, and no single solution. The book takes on not simply fast food, but the culture of fast food in the U.S. and how we have exported it around the world. At times the chapters start in an area which seem to have nothing to do with food, but it always ties into the the food industry. The group taking the biggest hit is the meat industry, and forget McDonalds, you'll never look at the hamburger on your own grill the same way anymore.

Schlosser takes on marketing tatics, meat processing techniques, cattle feeding methods, use of legal and illegal migrants, workplace safety, OSHA standards, FDA standards, USDA standards, school lunches, congressional acts, presidential appointments, franchise operations and contracts, and grass-fed beef. He travels to the restaurants, the factories, the fields around the U.S., to the McDonald's near Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and talks about fast food around the world. He covers so much information that it is clear that this is not some mass conspiracy whipped up in a smoky backroom, but instead the worst case scenario for capitalism which forgets the reason we support it -- for people.

I could offer many stomach turning anecdotes, although to do so would not only just turn you off (ask my family), but would miss Schlosser's point. He did not write this as a "gross out" bestseller, and he gets disgusting only when necessary. Unfortunately, his simply telling of facts is disgusting enough. Tie all this into our increasing obesity issues, which can be clearly tied to our increase in eating fast food (just check nutrition facts at McDonalds or Burger King), and you can see something should be done. Schlosser ends his book with some quick recommendations and I only wish he would have spent more time here. But the one basic one is to ban fast food advertising aimed at children. We banned cigarette advertising and saw a huge decline in smoking. We regulate alcohol advertising because of health issues. Yet food aimed at kids which give them all the calories they need for a day in one meal is allowed? And we wonder why kids are obese? Sure, we need to get kids moving more, but take the low-hanging fruit here and cut back on what kids are told to eat.

One of the best parts of the book is the afterword in which Schlosser quotes the bad reviews which met the original edition. He notes that while the industry and those related to it have called the book nothing but lies, none of them have offered a single refutation of any of the facts he relates. That should give anyone pause to wonder. I'm avoiding details because there are too many, but suffice it to say the book is required reading for anyone who eats. You can still eat whatever you want, but at least you'll be informed about what you are eating.

Oh, and the fries taste good because they were fried in beef tallow -- the Hindus and vegetarians were not pleased to learn that. 

Next Up
Going a different direction as I read a new book about Jesuit life in the everyday world. A friend of mine is a Jesuit priest and my daughter has just signed on to volunteer for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, so this seems timely. Plus, I have not reviewed anything for Blogcritics lately so I should do that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Forty-Three: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather and (43B-Food Rules by Michael Pollan) and (43C--Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

Yes, I have three books to report on this week, but do not be too impressed. Cather's novel is short, although I'll admit to reading her prose slowly because it is worth the time. Pollan's book is very short and intended to be a quick read. The fairies book has been my bedtime book the last few weeks, although I plowed through it this week just to get it over with (guess what my thoughts are on this one).

A Lost Lady
Willa Cather's work always fascinates me thanks to Mrs. Pepoy's introduction of her to my first-year college writing class through the classic O Pioneers! Both her novels and short stories are strong, but the short novel, A Lost Lady, had sat on my bookshelf too long.

It is a novel which brings in the familiar Cather themes of old vs. new, stagnation vs. growth, and to stretch the idea a bit, love vs. loyalty. Cather published the work in 1923 and in it we see a move away from the pioneers of My Antonia and O Pioneers! as the modern world makes itself felt on the Western expansion. As a result, the idyllic but harsh pioneer life Cather lived and captured are falling away.

The novel centers around Niel Pommeroy, a young boy living with his lawyer uncle in a small railroading town. The object of much of his attention is Mrs. Forrester, the young wife of a older man who has made a comfortable living based on his railroad work. As a growing boy Niel admires the Mrs. Forrester for her elegance, her ease with people, and her promise of something greater than the town. But like most railroad towns, the modern world begins to leave it behind and their social decline is mirrored with Mr. Forrester's financial decline. Niel is close to the childless couple and even takes a year off of college to help care for the ailing husband. The grim future is represented by Ivy Peters, a cruel kid who becomes (you guessed it) a cheating lawyer. He eventually buys up parts of the town including parts of the Forrester estate, and after the death of Mr. Forrester he takes a least temporary possession of Mrs. Forrester.

Niel's dedication to Mrs. Forrester is often described as a love interest by many critics, but I think that misses the point. He loves her, but not as a woman so much as an idea. She represents for Niel possibilities: passion for life, a wider world of experience, self confidence, and elegance not seen in a rural town. Even when he discovers she is having an affair he manages to overlook the reality which denies the possibilities. Only when he sees Ivy groping her in the kitchen does his idealism disappear, although his fondness for her does not since he is still in love with possibilities. What is interesting is that Mrs. Forrester never loses the appearance of these possibilities. She moves beyond Ivy Peters to settle comfortably in Buenos Aires as the wife of a rich Englishman. What Cather shows in that quick end stroke is the facade such possibilities often exist upon. Her life in rural Nebraska and her own struggles with her sexuality doubtless left her with little patience for anything less than reality.

Food Rules
Michael Pollan is a leading voice in making us think about what we eat, how we eat, and how our food is created/produced.  His books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, (both on my short list) have become the bibles for people concerned about our food. Food Rules is like a "Dummy's Guide" to how to eat for the rest of us. The book contains 64 rules, most no more than a short page long, which are split into three categories: What Should I Eat, What Kind of Food Should I Eat, and How Should I Eat.

Pollan clearly expects you to take to some rules more than others, and he is quick to point out that much of what he says is common wisdom. Given our current state of food production and our health issues, I'm not sure the wisdom is too common anymore. The first two parts are what you would expect -- eat real (not processed food), eat more greens, eat meat less often and make sure it is healthy, and don't buy anything your grandmother would not recognize as food. It was the third section which interested me the most. He emphasizes the communal nature of food and notes that when we eat together, we tend to eat better. The French get extra attention because they do not eat the healthiest food, but are in better health than most. He notes they eat less, take longer at meals, and drink wine -- all good things. "Stop Eating Before You Are Full," is one that hits home as I just passed losing 30 pounds in the past three months. Just the other day I ate too much and felt "full," which made me realize how good it is to not fill stuffed. But my favorite rule in the book: "Don't Get Your Fuel From the Same Place Your Car Does." No more six packs of powdered doughnuts for me!  

The Good Fairies of New York
This was a stretch book for me since fantasy does not get much of my attention. Some other bloggers highly recommended this book and since even Neil Gaiman loves it, I thought it would be worth the effort. Afraid I was wrong. While the premise is interesting, the writing is not. The narrative is disjointed and poorly organized, the story line longer than needed, and it even includes those elements which kill fantasy books for most (such as the approval of incest -- and I don't care if they are fairies). 

The back cover promises:
When a pair of fugitive Scottish thistle fairies end up transplanted to Manhattan by mistake, both the Big Apple and the Little People have a lot of adjusting to do. Heather and Morag just want to start the first radical fairy punk rock band, but first theyll have make a match between two highly unlikely sweethearts, start a street brawl between rival gangs of Italian, Chinese, and African fairies, help the ghost of a dead rocker track down his lost guitar, reclaim a rare triple-bloomed Welsh poppy from a bag lady with delusions of grandeur, disrupt a local community performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream, and somehow manage to stay sober enough to save all of New York from an invasion of evil Cornish fairies.

All true, but Heather and Morag are just tiring, whining fairies. Heather helps Dinnie transform from an overweight, obscene, cruel, and untalented person into an object of desire in just a short time, and since it is mainly without magic we know why this is fantasy.  There are about 15 plot lines in here and Millar simply puts an extra space between paragraphs to indicate we are jumping to something else completely. Some plots are built up only to fizzle out, others go on and on (fix the fiddle already! find the guitar! grow a new flower!), and some just push other plots forward. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a fantasy fan to comment more, so I'll hold my tongue. I'm also in the minority on this one since most reviews are glowing, so do not write this off just on my opinion.

Up Next
Every year I co-chair a critical issues symposium at my college and for 2010 our topic is food. Thus the Pollan interest. This week I'm reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.