Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"The Post-Birthday World" by Lionel Shriver

I actually read this book a year and a half ago, but is one that needs to be acknowledged here. It is one that has stuck with me, and has been scribbled down and e-mailed countless times to my friends. Have you ever allowed yourself to wonder "what if"...if you'd made this decision over that one, married this person instead of that would your life had changed? This book allows a delightful opportunity to peer into a parrallel life of Irina, our protagonist, and actually see the "what if".

Irina has lived in London with Lawrence, an intellectual think-tank manager, for a decade. Their relationship is comfortable and maybe a little boring. Every year they get together with their friend, Ramsey, a devil-may-care snooker champion, to celebrate his birthday. One year, Lawrence is out of town and Irina decides to continue with the tradition by herself. Irina and Ramsey proceed to get hammered (or in London, "pissed") and approach the fork in the road. You see this coming, right? At this point in the book, there are two "Chapter 2's", "two Chapter 3's", etc. In the first of the two chapters, Irina falls for the dashing Ramsey, ultimately leaves Lawrence, and lives the unpredictable and non-stop life of a snooker wife (or more appropriately a snooker widow). In the second of the two chapters, Irina resists temptation and stays with Lawrence, steadfastly loyal but bored out of her skull. Each outcome is so completely different, and unexpected, and I won't ruin it for you.

Shriver is a very talented writer and is a joy and a hoot to read. This book is FULL of ironies, some absolutely hilarious. The two story lines intertwine fabulously. For example, in one parallel life, Irina and Ramsey visit Irina's family for Christmas, Ramsey gets toasted and trashes the place, and Irina is left apologizing. In the other life, it is Irina that drinks too much and makes a mess, and Lawrence has to pick up the pieces. These clever little slights of hand had me laughing out loud. It was rated in the top 5 must reads of 2007 by Entertainment Weekly, and I know that I will read it again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver (audio)

You may start to think I am a tried true follower of Oprah, since this is the second book I have recently read that has been on her list, and the third, if you count the stroke lady. I assure you that I am not, however I have found you really don't go wrong with her recommendations. This one is no exception. It was actually recommnded to me by a fellow reader friend, and I had no idea what it was about, and was pleasantly surprised.

The book really falls into two major sections. In the first section, a fire-and-brimstone, hypocritical, chauvanist minister (no I didn't like him!) drags his wife and four girls to the Congo as missionaries. They rush headlong into the bush with hand mirrors and Betty Crocker cake mixes, and are completely unprepared for what is waiting for them...starvation, deadly snakes, lions, flesh-eating ants, you name it. The Congo made its mark on each member of this missionary family that followed them for the rest of their lives. The second section of the book starts with a heart-breaking family tragedy and goes through the next 25 years after the Congo. The wife and children all become disenchanted with the misguided father and leave. The eldest daughter Rachael (a narcissist of the highest order) goes on to marry her way through rich husbands and run a resort in South Africa. The first of the two twins, Leah, marries a native Congolese and continues to live and raise their children in Africa, despite repeated imprisonment of her husband. The other twin, Adah, moves back to the US and becomes a doctor. The mother also moves back to the US and never remarries.

The book is a fascinating tale of a family living through a momentous time in African history - it truly is a history lesson. But it is more about the impact of events on people's lives, and how each deals with tragedy and difficulties in their own way. Kingsolver's prose is unmatched. It is like a poem, each set of words like taking a bite of a rich sweet. My only criticism is that the author wears her political views so openly on her sleeve, but is still very easy to get caught up in the novel and ignore (if you wish) her stong opinions.

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski

I'm not sure there are words in my vocabulary that can adequately provide justice to this book. It is simply one of the best books I have read in a very long time - a contemporary classic. I will be haunted by it for weeks to come. In short (haha, I'm not good at short) it is about a mute boy (Edgar Sawtelle) and his family that raise a fictitious breed of dogs in America's heartland. The dogs are a brainchild of Grandpa Sawtelle, who bred the dogs to be highly intelligent, able to communicate with humans and to make intuitive decisions. It is hard to offer a synopsis without spoilers, but I will try, because it is such an incredible journey to make your way through this book without knowing what will happen (don't read the inner sleeve of the book if you can help it). Edgar's family is irreversibly changed by the appearance of his long-lost uncle Claude. Because of two back-to-back life-altering events, Edgar takes three of the Sawtelle dogs and embarks on a cross-country journey (both physically and in his heart). He returns home after several months to find that everything has changed.

Love, unbreakable bonds, tragedy, loss, hope, deception, and a little supernatural thrown in for fun...this book is all of these things. And for those of you that at one point in your life have experienced the unfailing love and loyalty of a dog, you will be blown away. The author so clearly gets it. I consider myself to be mildly sentimental, but books do not get to me all that easily, and I can always sense when the author is attempting to manipulate my emotions. This one got to me...I cried, and towards the end, started reading slower and slower because I really didn't want it to end.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"My Stroke of Insight" by Jill Bolte Taylor

I guess I have a special interest in this book since I saw Jill Bolte Taylor on the Oprah Show when I was in the audience. All attendees received Jill's book, and I read it quickly. She has an amazing story. As a 37-year-old Harvard brain scientist, she experiences a massive hemmorage on the left side of her brain. Instead of experiencing panic, she finds it to be very "cool" (her words) to be able to experience something that she has studied all her life. She loses all ability to walk, talk, recognize people...she becomes "an infant in a woman's body". It takes her nearly eight years to recover all her faculties, but comes out at the end of the rehabilitation a changed person (no doubt, right?). But in ways you wouldn't imagine.

While her left brain was not operational, she was able to fully concentrate on what the right brain had to say. She had a sense of oneness with the world. She was peaceful, without the negative "chatter" you get from the left side of the brain. She was free of her emotional baggage! And although she didn't understand language at the earlier stages of recovery, she recognized a person that was a safe haven, and she could tell when someone was lying. Because her right brain was so euphoric, she had to be convinced to come out of herself, back into the world. It was so much work for her to do this, she would only respond to those who treated her like a human being, not a blob. She would work hard for the doctors and nurses that would hold eye contact and would touch her. She would shut down on those that did not. Now, when she is fully recovered, she is using her learnings to lead a more peaceful life, living in the now.

I sort of had an "ah-ha" while listening to Jill speak. First and foremost, for anyone who has had an acquaintance with a brain deficiency (stroke, accident, Alzheimer's), it is enlightening to know that in some instances these people are in there and aware of what is going on. I've now heard it from one who has been there. And secondly, any of us can choose to be more aware of the part our left and right brains play in how we act and what we do. It is a choice to which side we listen to.

"Child 44" by Tom Rob Smith (audio)

I imagined that Child 44 would be another entertaining, yet forgetable murder mysteries. This was not case...not even close. This novel takes place in Stalinist Russia. Not a good place to be for anyone, even MGB agent Leo Demidov, our protagonist, who was once a poster boy for the state, but is, like most people at some point during this time, on thin ice.

A MGB colleague's son has just been found dead by a set of Moscow train tracks. To the passerby, it looks like an accident. The child's family claims it was murder. Leo is asked to "handle" this inconvenient situation by sweeping it under the rug to avoid any embarassment. He then is instructed to hunt down a suspected spy (for no reason other than he is a vet treating the pets of the US ambassador), and soon is faced with the reality that this man is not guilty of anything. In fact, most of the people he hunts down and often tortures and kills are innocent. His guilt and conscience soon begin to show through and he and his wife very quickly become an enemy of the state. All that has been given to him and his parents as a result of his status (good jobs, upscale living conditions, shopping priveledges) are taken away and all are threatened with imprisonment and death. He is demoted and shipped away to a small town to spend the rest of his supposed short life to work a menial job. There he discovers more deaths of children, similar to the one he brushed aside in Moscow. There are so many similarities, including bone-chilling details of rape, disembowelment, and mulch shoved in the mouths of the victims. He becomes driven, single-mindedly, to solve these murders, as his last act of retribution. He does solve these crimes, but even I of the sick and twisted mind failed to see the entire picture until the end.

Smith is an absolute master at time-warping you back to this era of hypocrisy, paranoia and witch-hunts. It is the second piece of media that I have come across in just a few weeks (the documentary "Poisoned By Polonium" was the first) that artfully portrays Russian leaders as no more than common thugs, not above strong-arming, lying and deceiving to achieve their goals. Smith also has done a brilliant job of developing the character of Leo. It is actually Disc 6 before we get to the business of hunting down the serial murderer, but you don't really mind the journey. And as for this piece of fiction on audiotape, it was a joy. The Russian accents of the performer were the cherry on top.

Welcome to my Blog!

Although a bit intimidated, I decided to start a blog for several reasons. First and foremost, I am an avid reader. Despite a very busy life, I read on the average two books a week. I have read so many books, I cannot keep track of them all. This is a perfect way to log each one that I read, what its about, and my thoughts. Secondly, I am notorious for scribbling book recommendations on scraps of paper and giving them to my friends. Sometimes, if I am feeling aggressive, I will e-mail people on my recommendations. Perhaps this is a better, more passive way to share the love! Lastly, my sister has a wonderful blog primarily focused on independent films, and she convinced me that I nothing to lose. I welcome any comments or dialogue, and I am always looking for the next great read!

I find that most of the books I read are slanted towards crime and mystery, however I will read anything. I have made a pact with myself to try to read more "literature" and less murder and mayhem. We will see how long that lasts!

You will notice that about half of my reads are audio book. Some tell me this is not real reading. I will say that it is a wonderful way to multi-task...what better way to clean the house? Audio books bring the story to life in a way that sometimes my mind cannot do. On the reverse, it can also kill a good book. Either way it is a great way for me to crank through more books on my busy schedule.