Friday, October 05, 2018

Bluebird, Bluebird

Recently I completed reading the book Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.

The book, is a contemporary crime novel focused on a Texas Ranger, Darren Matthews, who with his own personal demons in the typical flawed hero fashion who finds himself involved solving a crime in a small East Texas town.

Yet, this book is not just a crime novel, it's a social reflection. The author, Locke, an African-American has chosen to make her main character a Black Texas Ranger -- something she calls out as unique. This man, is being indicted in court at the start of the book for involvement in another crime and being accused of protecting a black man (a friend) who is accused with limited evidence of killing a racist white man who had given his friend (and the ranger) grief on previous occasion. With his Texas Ranger status suspended he rolls into a situation where he's investigating a crime of a white woman and a black man (potentially connected) in a small town with a black diner and bar that may be part of a Aryan hate group. Oh, yes, and the small town's police force is, you guessed it, white and resistant to the rangers investigation.

I've chosen the phrase "social reflection" instead of "social commentary" though here to describe this book. Locke was clearly working through fiction to create characters and situations that interacted with the public discourse on the state and perceptions of African American rights and relationship with police and the justice system. Yet at the same time she chose some archetype characters put didn't just want to tell a one-dimensional tale with a cut and dry message. Instead she layered in a deep complexity of roles, power, and the impact of time and culture. In many ways shaping a story that in many ways seemed to say "this is complicated."

In many ways, one of the compelling parts of this story is that it takes place in small town Texas, and you can tell that Locke has done well to craft this landscape in a real and compelling way, that makes this story unique (and perhaps at time easier to contain) than a story that would take in an urban environment.

In that regard, as a story, there were times when I felt like Locke was more concerned with weaving this reflection and layering of characters than in creating a compelling plot. There was certainly moments here that were engaging, but there was also a point when I found myself ready for some action but instead got backstory and reflection -- something I typically enjoy, but with a series of flawed characters and complexities I found myself start to at times find myself to emotionally detach from the characters themselves and find out how it all fit together.

If there is one more critic here, it was that in many ways, there was something about this book that felt more like a film or television series. It may be unfair to assume that Locke's experience as a writer for the Televisions series show Empire would have influenced her writing here, but in a story like this I expected to see some more character arch in the central character, but instead Darren seemed like the star of a TV show with those around him coming in and out as support characters. In this way, it was not surprising to me to find out after reading it that FX had made purchased rights to Locke's work (this book to be the first of three) to be produced under the name Highway 57. I could see this doing well in this medium, and frankly in many ways I sensed it being written with this end game at least partially in mind.

All in all thought, I appreciated this book and think that it's good to see these conversations as part of our social dialogue and appreciate what seemed to be an attempt to present a multi-faceted story that didn't try to hard to generalize the race/justice conversation into a single narrative.

This book is part of my 12 books in 2018 challenge, see the other books/post here

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ordinary Grace

I've been reading the book Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger for awhile and have recently finished it.

Why it has taken me so long to read (months perhaps?) has perplexed me. The book was an enjoyable read. I would sit down and read the bite sized chapter and enjoy the coming of age style story of Frank Drum growing up in a small Minnesota town in 1961.

I could imagine the town, the characters and the details of the relationship between the young Frank and his younger brother, older sister and conflicted parents.

Frank's father, a minister was a respectful characterization of a pastoral character. I am always intrigued by pastoral characters who often are portrayed in the extremes fluffy-bunny softies or secretly sadistic maniacs and appreciated this tale that made him very much someone who was between these extreme. I man who acting on his vocational desires but dealing with his own past, a family in their own unique places in their lives and spiritual journeys, and dealing with a congregation with their own spectrum of interest. This by far was the greatest joy to me in the story.

So coming back to my original perplexity here is "why did it take me so long to read?" I joked with my mid-west wife that reading this book made me feel like I was hanging out in a mid-west town or with mid-west people. There was a lot of life details and the pace was a little bit in the ordinary space, even, when the events were far from typical. And then in the same way I wasn't bored. I could easily have enjoyed this type of book in the spirit of a television miniseries or serial TV show (Broadchurch or Bloodline) as the characters and the stories unraveling are in many ways more intriguing then the finale.

A delightful read towards my 2018 reading challenge, but one that slowed me down somehow just a bit.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

Oh my, this was a good one.

The Monk of Mokha by is a new biography by Dave Eggers about an unlikely entrepenuer Mokhtar Alhanshali. (Although a biography, Amazon currently has this book at "#1 Best Seller in the Persian Gulf Travel Guides Category" which is a less than accurate category, but...well algorithms and such).

Mohktar is a twenty-something second generation American of Yemeni descent growing up in  rough neighborhood of San Francisco trying to find his way in a world. He's not sure of his passion, college is not quite obtainable, and in many ways is at a millennial crisis with his values, his culture and the American dream.

And yet - the story does not just hem and haw through this journey. Instead the talented Dave Eggers writes a wonderful story that in many ways, takes it's readers by the suprises that I'm sure were equally surprising for Mohktar as he saw his story unfold. T

Mohktar realizes the central role Yemen had to the initial discovery and cultivation of coffee in the 16th century, and Mohktar in this discovery takes great pride in this lesser known fact in a world where Yemen had a small fraction of the coffee trade and was not known for quality coffee. He decides that he wants to bring he book in many ways is as much an education in coffee cultivation and the global trade of coffee (which Eggers takes some great care to outline in conjunction with the period of time that Mohktar was also learning the scale and scope of his new found dream).

So as the story introduces Mohktar and educates the readers about coffee, the book then takes the amazing turn as Mohktar heads to Yemen and begins to begin his entrepenueral dreams with limited experience, capital, and a war torn country where he finds himself caught in the middle of Saudi led airstrikes in Yemen and a divided country between Houtis forced and a complex set of allies and political and rebel coalitions within the political hotbed.

What starts as an endearing person story, turns into the history of coffee and by the end becomes  quite the page turner.

The story's a pleasure and one that I was glad was part of my 2018 reading list for 12 books in 2018.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

After waiting quite some time on my library wait list, this clearly popular book came in and was an easy book to tear through.

The book Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is an interesting character study about a suburban family with four teenagers in Shaker Heights, Ohio. The book works through some perhaps common themes of items such as suburban ideals versus deviant rejection of these principles, but does so with intriguing story telling.

One of my favorite things that Ng did in this book was unravel the story in a way that almost carelessly (but clearly intentionally) dropped hints along the way of future parts of the story while keeping the details locked up -- early on the book outlines an event with a fire, talks about a town controversy, details a mother and daughter leaving town in the middle of the night, and some interpersonal challenges between a group of four siblings. What is it all about you ask? And the book lets the intrigue unfold one question at a time.

In addition to Ng's story telling, she also does a great job of demonstrating an understanding of people. The characters she creates generally seem reasonable and believable. These may be characters but they not only seem believably but also reasonable archetypes on a suburban community.

As on of my book choices for 2018 (12 books in 2018 goal), this was an enjoyable selection and addition, not to mention, pleasantly intriguing.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Sourdough

In 2017 I ended by 12 book goal with Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Since reading it I have found that I felt like it's style and themes connected with me in a way that left me enjoying without giving out a lot of recommendations for others to read. Certain pieces of the book felt like they touched on my own idiosyncratic interest, such as typography.

So I was pretty excited to finish reading a see that Robin Sloan had recently written a book called Sourdough.

Sourdough conceivably was something that instantly resonated me having recently restarted by own starter (a dedicated sourdough bread maker for over a year until a dishwasher and insurance issue interrupted my diligence). Similar to Mr. Penumbra, this book did not disappoint - there were times when I was reading, laughing out loud and feeling connected to the character Lois (is she Lois from the technology firm, or is she Lois the bread maker?) who is capable of making it in the modern world, but called to other less mechanized worlds.

In many ways, Sourdough was an easy read, but also had some narrative inconsistencies, largely because Lois is in many way the singular character in this story and everyone else who comes and goes are less than supporting characters, limiting the narrative arch of the story.

All said, plenty to enjoy here - although at time I stopped reading to make my own sourdough bread.

--

This book is part of my series 12 books in 2018.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me --  or as my daughter and I called it What's the name of that book again? -- is a delightful children's novel and Newberry medal winner by Rebecca Stead.

My 9-year old reader doesn't typically take my recommendations, and this was no exception. But when she got sick I read this to her and we both really enjoyed it.

Stead's book is different for modern children's literature  in that it takes place in the late 70s in New York City with a plot that in part centers on the mother's acceptance as a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid. In fact, because of the $20,000 Pyramid theme my daughter and watched a YouTube episode of the show (an episode with David Letterman as the celebrity guest) to help her understand what the author was talking about (such as the speed round and winner's circle). The chapters have topics like you'd see in the game show so we pretended that each chapter was one of these challenges (example chapter title is "Things That Open" and I'd say "Jar of Peanut Butter, Car Door, House Door, Backpack).

The book was really enjoyable to read aloud and has a mysterious plot (mystery notes) as well as some pre-teen angst ("why is that boy no longer talking to me" and changing interpersonal relationships), and with super short chapters it led itself well to bed time reading where you could decide how long you were going to read and not get stuck in the middle of a chapter.

The book's main character, Miranda, loves the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, and if my daughter took my recommendations I'd use that as a jumping spot to get her to read that one (on her own), but that's probably not so promising.

This book has a lot of heart and sweetness and is the perfect book for a girl my daughter's age -- hitting them right on the edge of more independence, more emotion and a time where an understated female hero navigating family and friendship is delightful.

**
Part of the 2018 reading series for 12 books in 2018.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Return: Fathers, Sons and The Land in Between

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize (Biography/Autobiography) winning book The Return by Hisham Matar.

Matar's story is remarkable, namely because while he has spent much of his time in the western world -- including his birth, having been born in New York when his father was a part of Libyan delegation to the UN -- his life centered on volatile Libran country under the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. What is more, his father Jaballa Matar with deep political roots was not an allie to this regime and the young Matar and family were exiles of privledge. Matar's seem so foreign and incredible, stories of family members on the lookout constantly for fear of the worst.

In 1990, as a young man, Matar's father was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Policy. For all the intrigue of the period of Matar's life up to this point, this book really focuses on the years after the kidnap, especially those in the final days of Gaddafi regime.

Matar's book is only semi-linear, with pieces of his story and his quest to understand his father's fate as the central thread in the story.

In reading this book, some sections were quite powerful, while others were a little bit challenging to get through. In many ways, a disappointment of mine was that while Matar's father was kidnapped I felt like he wardened off his narrative from understanding the people that were in his life through the journey, namely his mother and wife Diana. I was left curious wondering, who are these ladies? How did his mother bare these times? in this regard, my favorite passages were the limited glimpses into his mother's act of waiting in the early days of his kidnap including the video taping of soccer matches he was missing on television.

Yet, the central focus of this book is Matar and his personal reckoning with his father's imprisonment.

There is one paragraph in this book, that I really feel sums up the ethos of this book that in my opinion in the central thesis of this text.

"The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travelers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet, and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem to drift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers themselves must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of losses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man's hand that had ushered him into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting, of surrender and rebellion, until a son's gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows. With every passing day the father journeys further into his night, deeper into the fog, leaving behind remnants of himself and the monumental yet obvious fact, at once frustrating and merciful -- for how else is the son to continue living if he must not also forget -- that no matter how hard we try we can never entirely know our fathers."  
 --The Return, Hisham Matar (first paragraph of Chapter 6, "Poems")
**

This book is one of the books in my 2018 goal of reading 12 books in 2018.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

I recently (and quickly) finsihed When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The book, which was published post posthumously does not keep the author in suspense as to the eventual outcome of the author. Paul Kalanithi was in his final year of residency in neurological surgery when diagnosed with lung cancer.

My expectation of the book was that it would focus on the trials of a doctor dealing medical tragedy and that it would be an emotionally heavy read.

While the above was partially ture, what I read was different than expected.

For starters, as discussed in the forward and in the text of the memoir, Kalanithi was a fantastic writer. Kanithi had not initially began his life trajectory looking towards medicine, and instead had a literary interest (his undergraduate study was in English literature), and the though of writing was not something that occurred at the onset of cancer, rather something that was contemplated for later in his life. The result was a memoir written by a fantastic writer. The text was interesting, compelling, contemplative, and engaging. I am convinced that this is only slightly in part due to the life situation that Kalanithi found himself in -- his cancer.

The first half of the book deals with Kalanithi's pre-cancer life and his telling of his life pre-cancer was incredibly compelling, not for the actual content but the authenticity of how he ended up a brain surgeon and the lessons along the way. To read about the real experiences of a brain surgeon (names and situations changed to protect the medical rights of those described) is a window into a common world that is rarely shared (probably that protecting the privacy of others, and not all doctors could write some contemplatively).

The title of the book seemed poetic at at the start, but the title is so apt because it really describes the stories central conflict -- a wrestling of the treatment of the inevitable treatment from life to death and the existential challenge of the decisions that are made along the way.

One of the great things about this book, is that as a reader you know the outcome, you read the sincerity in the text that Kalanithi doesn't know his outcome and is wrestling with the decisions of what a young man is supposed to do with his life when he doesn't know his remaining life. As for conclusions, Kalanithi is transparent in not presenting a path, instead acknowledging how his own thoughts shaped and evolved as his story unfolds.

While the story is sad, for me the years didn't start until about page 187, I see this book as a great gift for Kalantithi to share, and a great gift that his wife Lucy Kalanthi gave in finishing the book and helping bring the book to press upon his death.

**
This book is one of the books in my 2018 goal of reading 12 books in 2018.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Steal Away Home

The book Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon & Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom was my first book of 2018.

The book is written by Mat Carter and Aaron Ivey, both pastors of Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX.

The introduction of the book indicates that the authors were in part inspired by the the 1975 Pulitzer Award winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. While this book's narrative shifts between two historical characters in parallel, this is not quite an equitable comparison.

Prior to reading the book I had limited familiarity with the central character, Charles Spurgeon the famous -- and widely published -- London preacher. The other character, Thomas Johnson is a slave who is emancipated following the American Civil War.

In many ways the intrigue that kept me engaged for most of the book was the question "how in the world, do these two men connect with one another?" And in many ways, the sections of the book that didn't help draw me into that plot were a struggle to read (such as a long passage discussing a young Spurgeon's horseback ride in the English country). And in a similar way, once the initial connection is made (which is my favorite part of this book) the remainder seems to drag to a conclusion.

Those who might come to this book with an initial and stronger interest in Spurgeon's life might enjoy the details that authors create in this historical fiction to tell such a broad story that tries to capture the heart and humanity of Spurgeon, Yet, I personally found the Thomas Johnson sections more intriguing. Surely there is more text and documentation of Spurgeon's life to recreate and capture him than Thomas Johnson, and feel that Carter and Ivey may have written these sections with less pressure to layer in facts and could write in a way to drive forward the narrative.

While the publisher of this book, B&H Publishing, is associated with LifeWay Christian Resources and is likely presented for a Christian audience, one of the items that I appreciated about this book was that Charles Spurgeon is as much a historical figure as a spiritual figure. His celebrity status in his time comes out in this telling -- the tone and accounts of journalist both in England and the United States was intriguing, whether it was the paper commenting on his initial public ministry, treatment of Spurgeon's opposition to slavery, and the growth of his church.

It's clear that the authors put much attention into the care and treatment of the story and the subject is interesting. I struggled at times in reading with the writing style, namely, I don't recall having a read a book in my life with as many adjectives as this one. Additionally, it seemed as those the authors desire to cover as much breadth as they could covered in the central characters lives meant that the story departed from typical narrative plot devises (conflict, climax, resolution) that could have been achieved leaving out certain parts of the characters stories for purposes of the narrative.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

12 Books in 2018


In 2017 I threw myself into a "simple" challenge to read 12 books in 2017. It was a pleasure. So much so, I said...I need to read (at least) 12 books again in 2018.

Here's the book's I've read in 2018:

1. Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Levy (2017; historical fiction)
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016; memoir)
3. The Return: Fathers, Son and The Land in Between by Hisham Matar (2016: memoir)
4. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009; young adult/children's fiction)
5. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017; contemporary fiction)
6. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017; contemporary fiction)
7. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers (2018; biography)
8. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013; contemporary fiction/mystery)
9. Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (2017; contemporary fiction; crime)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore

In the final hours of 2017, I finished my "Read 12 books in 2017" personal challenge by completing Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

This 2012 hardcover copy I received from the library labeled this book as sci-fi/fantasy and typically that is not my genre, and to my pleasure I found that labeling frankly to be incorrect.

I don't know what you call this genre, but it certainly is fiction written in a casual style, incorporating contemporary and future driven themes and and perhaps a tone of nerdy intrigue.

Yes, nerdy intrigue. This book seems to be written with nerds at heart. Especially contemporary nerds who love to think about technology.

The scene of this story is set in San Francisco with characters who designed website, worked for Industrial Light and Magic, and Google. They talk about things in this book like web page coding, OCR (Optical Character Recognition), and Google work culture. Oh yes, and books. 

This modern realism in many ways captures a unique period in history. This book is certainly not for everyone (i.e those who could care less about algorithms stay home). Sloan's book is surprisingly lovely in the way it unfolds and exceeded expectations.

Added surprise bonus for me was when I laid the book down the other evening and turned out the light and found out the book cover was glow in the dark. Never have I read a book with a glow in the dark cover.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

In the quest to get through 12 books in 2017 (this is number 11, finished just before Christmas) I read The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.

This book with it's setting predominantly in Delhi, India. It starts in 1996 with a marketplace bombing and the death of two young brothers of a Hindu family. The story from there traces the impact and years that follow for various people involved in this moment.

Unlike some other stories that retell the same story from the perspective of different individuals, Mahajan uses a powerful narrative to continually drive this story forward in time while shifting perspectives and writing in a powerful third person omniscient voice. Mahajan seamlessly shifts from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another, passing through memories, dreams, aspirations, and thoughts. In this way the writing is strong and powerful.

Equally strong to the writing is the the actual plot, characters and messages. The way the story unfolds with these characters is very believable and while there are some lighter moments mixed with heavier themes everyone seems real -- this is not an allegorical tale with abstractions. While there are Muslims, Hindus, activists and terrorist each person is a true character that is complex and not included to represent an idea. Mahajan gives the characters in this book not just a chance to develop and evolve but to change multiple times, revisiting who they are and there experiences.

In many ways this book is a powerful story that I suspect will shape my own thoughts as I consider the people in news stories of similar bombings or other acts of terror. The story powerfully puts a human face and time into an equation of the news cycle that often moves on quickly. 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

As part of my 12 books in 2017 reading goals I picked up this book by Michael Lewis. Why? Well...because Michael Lewis.

Michael Lewis -- you probably know his work even if you don't think you know his work.

His candid reporting style on complicated topics is unmatched, and has led to film adaptations about his common topics of sports and Wall Street (Money BallBlindsideThe Big Short).

In this book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis explores the impact of the financial crisis on countries who following great (and sudden) prosperity found themselves in unfortunate (and equally sudden) despair.

The was written in 2011, so in some cases these stories have continued with new updates, but the narratives and lasting impact of these events haven't changed.

One of the compelling parts of this book is the presentation of different countries collective misconceptions, ambitions and sins that manifest themselves in different ways. Lewis, clearly presents that Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Germany found themselves in different places post financial crisis for different reasons -- and while these countries have vast histories.

In the final chapter regarding the United States, Lewis paints an interesting picture of the US, especially focusing on California -- which is particularly interesting because one of my favorite parts of this book is his interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Always find something special in a Michael Lewis book, and this is no exception.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Life We Bury

As I start the final lap on my 12 books in 2017 challenge, I made great pace with The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens.

The 2014 debut novel by Eskens is in the thriller/suspense category (my library put a sticker that said "mystery" on the spine, but the category certainly doesn't seem right).

I wasn't sure what I thought of this book when I started it. It begins with a McGuffin involving a college student with limited connections going to an old folks home to find someone to interview for an English project and being connected to a criminal who's spending his last days before his death in the care of the nursing home.

Part of what allowed me to get over the set up is that I thought it was funny because my six year old son is doing a school project where they're writing the biography of an elderly person at a nursing home with a series of field trip visits to learn about the person (they call them "Grand Friends"). I told my son I was reading a book about a college student with a "Grand Friend" and frankly it made the McGuffin more believable. I was tempted, but did not tell my son, that in my book the "Grand Friend" was imprisoned for raping and killing a 14-year old girl.

So, about a third of the way into the book, you can see some of where this book is going, and I went along.

The middle third of the book though (don't worry, no spoilers here), really did seem to do something special. Eskens created a good layer of intrigue and then told a surprising series of stories that developed every character in the story in a compelling way. There was a layer added to each of their stories that rally delivered.

In the last third of the book, the plot accelerates, the drama, the thrills, and everything that make this book movie worthy (surely, there will be a movie).

Speaking of the non-existent film adaptation I'm envisioning... I'm sure there's a lot of ways this could go, but with the bleak Minnesota climate portrayed here, I'd love to see a film version here by Debra Granik who's film Winter's Bone staring Jennifer Hudson presented a bleak and hostile Ozarks.

Classic literature here? Nah. But enjoyable, compelling, and good story telling -- why of course.