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 12 books again in 2018.

Let's begin! Certainly interested in any recommendations.

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)

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.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Throwback Special

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder is a newer book (2017), that is a great fictional novel to enjoy in the heart of football season.

The book has a somewhat unconventional premise, that almost like a symbolic plot element, works to create the scene more so that to be the essence of the story.

The plot revolves around twenty-two men who gather annually to reenact the November 1985 play in Monday Night Football where in a match-up between the Washington Redskins matched up against the New York Giants and quarterback Joe Theismann has his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor in a trick play gone wrong.

The story takes place over the weekend when these men gather and the story unfolds. While football plays a central thread to the story, the story is hardly about football. In fact, in many ways any man who has gathered with other men for any purposes (business or recreation), can probably relate to some part of this story. The story in many way, in my read, focuses on the inner psyche and interpersonal relationship among male acquaintances. In this regard, there is certainly something about this book that is a little existential, if not somewhat like a stand up comedy routine regarding male insecurity.

The novel is very well written and a pleasure to read. Bachelder's ridiculous premise and strangely unique insight and style has certainly sparked my interest here with this book. Not to mention, got me watching the clip of the 1985 Monday Night Football clip on YoutTube a number of times so I could capture and connect with the scene that these characters where trying to capture.

This book is book number 8, in my 2017 goal to read 12 books in 2017.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

This past summer a friend posted on Facebook that she was starting a Facebook book reading group to read the book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I was instantly intrigued to get my hands on this book.

It intrigued me because I was in part curious as to what this book would offer, acknowledging ahead of my reading that the church experience in American is rarely multi-cultural, and yet personally I would come up short on offering any true explanation.

Race-issues in the United States continue to be a part of our national conversation, and although this book was published in 2000, I found it a relevant read.

The book is somewhat out of my standard swim lane, for reading. If I read something in the social sciences, it usually is more in the realm of economics (although it's often applied economics, and there is an argument to be made that this is just sociology by another name).

The book is a scholarly text written by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, both university sociologist (at the time at Rice and University of North Carolina; currently at North Park University and Notre Dame).

In the book Emerson and Smith introduce the topic by laying a historical ground work for the race divide in America and the role of the American church, specifically the evangelical sects of the American church. The 30 page second chapter of the book titled "From Separate pews to Separate churches: Evangelical Thought and Practice, 1700 - 1964" is probably worth the cover price alone. This chapter outlines a compelling outline of American history through the lens of the race and the church.

From here the book breaks down the study that the professors performed and their results of many interviews across the United States. While this section of the book was in many ways one of the hardest parts to slog through, it also has in the past weeks of reading inspired the most conversation. Here the authors try to compartmentalize variations and differences in thoughts on race, as well as analyze the variations between white people against conservative protestant as well as strong and moderate evangelicals.

The research is very compelling and it was interesting to hear how people discuss race, whether in conversations I've had with people while reading this book, or as people discuss (privately or publicly such as in radio interviews) recent news events, such as the Charleston, Virginia demonstrations this past summer which sparked an intense national conversation.

The book is interesting in it's research and presentation to demonstrate how white evangelical Christians tend to have a different or religious based understanding of race, and as a result also a unique view on solutions namely one that is more based on inter personal relationships over structural change. From understanding the individual research, the researches further go on to discuss in it's conclusions also the role and sociological construct that leads towards homogeneous church bodies, and even the challenge of church leadership to speak out or breakdown these barriers within their congregations.

I appreciate the book, and was happy to include it in my 12 books in 2017 challenge. Also, enjoyable was to be able to engage on some of these topics through the Facebook group that my friend created, where we could share some of the items we enjoyed as well as some of the items that challenged us. What is a frustrating challenge with this text is that the authors research in conclusion ends with more questions and challenges than solutions. There is no defined policy recommendation or individual charge or action to be taken. Instead the book exposes the complexity of this historical and modern challenge which faces America, and presents a unique layer to how an evangelical perspective creates a variation in views on this topic, solutions on this topic, and potentially impacts progress in the area of racial discrimination and reconciliation in American.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

This is a good one and must recommend it, find a copy, buy a copy and get your hands on this one.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is my 6th book in my 12 books in 2017 challenge.

This book, a memoir of someone who self proclaims himself as unqualified to write a memoir (a man in his 30s who grew up in a poor community in Ohio, with a rocky family life, who joined the marines, went to college, got a degree at an Ivy league school and started a successful career breaking the cycle).

Yet in this humility, there is something powerful in this book that makes it enjoyable, reflective and important. Reading it I can see why this book has been as popular as it has been.

In my early discovery of this book, I saw notations that tied it relevance back to the 2016 election, not in impacting the election in any way, but instead crafting a narrative to "understand Trump's win." Frankly, reading this book to "understand Trump's win" is not compelling reason why I'd recommend this book -- this book to me, has very little to nothing to do about this past election.

Alternatively, this is simply a touching, thought provoking and well written book on many fronts. If the American story is one of understand the American dream and how that does (and does not) play out in society, this book fits right into that narrative and certainly may hold a place in the American cannon for the story it tells.

The book is rich in the sense that the story builds and every chapter is it's own interesting ecosystem in the way that Vance builds out his own story and lessons along the way. The build up is largely chronological, but also ends up being topical. Topics naturally range from things of family life, public education, university education, welfare, child protective services, substance abuse, childhood trauma, career opportunities and faith.

There are striking "characters" (albeit very real people), whether that be the cast of men in this book (especially his Papaw and biological father), or the women (his older sister, mother, and Mamaw). To me, the star "character" of this story who is told with such richness is that of his maternal grandmother, Mamaw. Mamaw is obviously an important character in not only J.D.'s life, but also in the various stages of his life. No character, as portrayed here, is more crass than Mamaw but she's also complex and the way her story unfolds through the eyes of her grandson's story is quite beautiful and reflective.

The topics here interconnected in Vance's story are complicated and in my opinion Vance does not make any far reaching attempts to over simplify the scenario of the rural working poor, instead delivers his own story with a sensitivity and openness to the challenges and future for this part of our cultural fabric.

In reading this book, I found myself in many context, whether hearing others talk or reading a news story that this book caused be pause to reconsider my position and thoughts -- not necessarily because this book proposes something so radical but presents a world that frankly I no so little about, and ought to take the chance to better understand.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nurtured by Love

The 12 Books in 2017 reading challenge continues with book #5. My book selection was Nurtured by Love by Shinichi Suzuki.

Suzuki is known for his violin training program ("Suzuki Method" or "Talent Education") which involves teaching young children, often before they can read how to play violin.

Suzuki's premise in his method, and outlined here is that children learn how to speak a complicated language (Japanese) through exposure to the language consistently from a young age.

The book (translated from Japanese) reads like a combination of often stream of conscious essays that share the details of his own life, his philosophy on "Talent Education," and how he arived as this philosophy.

Regarding his personal life, many parts read like a memoir, and to me the part that was most interesting was to read about his encounters with Einstein. The thought of these two men interacting together is alone quite fascinating. It was interesting to hear about his family and the impact of economic crisis in the early part of the 1900s impacting the trajecory of the families business.

His philosophy presented here extend far beyond violin. By far, the part that is most striking is a section of the book that talked about views towards kindness and learning about others (such as during his time riding the train) as well as how he spent time trying to learn from the innocence of four-year-old children.

 For the disjointed nature of the book (and sections that honestly, albeit short sort of lost my interest) I really enjoyed reading a book from such an influential voice of the previous century.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Memoirs of A Polar Bear

The 12 books in 2017 challenge continues with book #4 (falling slightly behind pace). My book selection was 2016 fictional book Memoirs of A Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada (translated from German by Susan Bernofsky).

This book is an interesting one. In many ways it's almost like a collection of three interconnected short stories, and because of it's writing style, symbolism and allegorical style probably has a number of unique interpretations.

On the surface, the story is about three generations of Polar Bears, with each part of the book reflecting the story of one of the polar bears written from their perspective.

And here's the thing, when I say written from their perspective, I have no idea what I'm really saying because it's not even entirely from their perspective. It's somewhat of a metaphysical world.

Here's a "for example," the first part of the book becomes a famous writer telling her own story of growing up in the harsh conditions of soviet Russia, and eventually getting rescued when the soviets begin discriminating against artists and writers and she is able to escape to Germany where she live in a small apartment and is given a stipend for writing.

And in a way, this crazy first part is the most abstract where the world of humans and animals morph in almost an animated-style Zootopia world (or perhaps Tawada is shooting more for Animal Farm).

Part two and three are different. Two has more of a lucid and poetic tone and as the longest of the three parts sort of lost me a few times. The writing is poetic and lovely but is by far the least narrative and looses that bizarre tone and style that made the first part captivating.

And finally, Part Three. In the interest of protecting future readers from too much detail, it seems that the book doesn't shy away from rooting itself in an adaptive telling of the story of Knut, a famous German polar bear who was rejected by it's mother and bottle fed by a human. This part is for the most part the most narrative, as if a project was to write the story of Knut from the perspective of Knut.

Having not been aware of Knut's story, this was interesting and this last connection to the real world kept me engaged and fighting to finish this to the end.

The curious telling of this story is simply intriguing so at times when it didn't fully captivate me, I was still compelled to see what Tawada would do next and where this was all going.

Will probably not look at a polar bear the same again, and perhaps this even changes the way I would see a circus or zoo experience as well, regardless of the animal.

I can't say I walked away saying "this is for everyone" but was an adventurous read.