Thursday, September 27, 2012


Mike Lofgren’s The PARTY is OVER: How Republicans went CRAZY, Democrats Became USELESS, and the Middle Class Got SHAFTED

The title says it all. One depressing book. Truly, corporate America in all its corruption rules the USA today. Lofgren says the solution is to publicly finance elections. As if that would be easy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shelter half: A Novel by Carol Bly

Shelter half: A Novel by Carol Bly

An intriguing novel. It is more a collection of short stories detailing quirky individuals living in a small Minnesota town with a typical small-town-gossipy character. It definitely has a Progressive message, but it does make you think. I have a couple of quibbles: the author falls into stereotyping and she leaves a few loose ends.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I liked this book a lot, and I’m not a baseball fan. At 512 pages it’s a long one. While the ending was a little too pat, I loved it for its poetic descriptions and its spot-on depictions of little things that make up our lives today.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

This book has been over-hyped. Skip it and read River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candace Millard if you want to get a good description of the wilds of remote Amazon tributaries.

The Paris Wife: A Novel, by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife: A Novel, by Paula McLain

In the beginning I was charmed by McLain’s prose, but the novel wore thin for a very long middle. I found the last chapters a little more interesting again. So much has been written about American artists and writers living in Paris in the 1920s. I simply did not find the novel compelling.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

War and Peace for our post 9/11 world

Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

I loved this book! It’s long, it’s repetitive, it rambles, but it is so poetic and effective in delivering a sense of what it must have been like for ordinary people living simple lives in a small town in southwestern Turkey in the early 20th century. This is one talented writer! He has researched and synthesized the essence of many critical factors in the life of the man who would bring Turkey into the modern, western world and he has woven those details into an imaginary tale of a small cast of characters who bring life to the drama of that time and place. I am in awe of his intelligence and talent.

In addition, this tale bears many lessons for Americans today if only we listen as I’m sure the author intends us to do.

This is the most extraordinary book I’ve read in years!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oops! Wolffe's 2nd book disappoints

Richard Wolffe’s Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House

A terrible book! Wolffe tries to do the impossible and fails. Wish he’d tried a different approach. While his summary, narrative flow of the campaign underlined much of what we all followed in the news, his attempt to go inside the White House using a similar narrative approach is generally chaotic and lacking in helpful analysis. I expect the Obama WH was chaotic during its first year but the journalist who attempts to report on that chaos needs to seek and find themes to organize the chaos for his readers. Yes, there are passages where Wolffe cuts to the chase, but mostly I found the book a disorganized ramble. 


Richard Wolffe’s Renegade: The Making of a President

An impressive book. Well written and seemingly even-handed tho I'm sure the right screams it's worshipful. It's organized by thematic chapters that have a rough correspondence to the primary and general campaigns, but there is some back and forth that's a little confusing.

I come away even more in awe of Obama and his intelligence and values. An amazing man.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American

Nicely written. The psychiatrist narrator ruminates about his father’s youth while he and his sister go to great lengths to discover the secret he took to his death.

I must agree with the Amazon reviewer who wrote that the book was ”Interesting But Not Totally Satisfying.”  The title is not helpful. This book defies titling. Virtually all the characters seemed normal--experiencing rather mild sorrows that didn’t warrant the trauma designation the publisher gave them. Such is life. And if these Americans had these sorrows, what do we call the routine tragedies of the normal lives of the citizens of so many other countries? Iraq? Burundi? Bangladesh? Perhaps this is the author’s message.
So there. I have been reading...

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

While I was happy to learn the substance of these two journalists’ reporting, I was horrified by the poor copy editing and dismayed by their over-the-top Time-esque writing style. I find this outrageous in a book listed at $32.50. Shame on Simon & Shuster. Our publishers need to climb off this slippery slope.

Gibbs and Duffy present mostly heart-warming stories of presidents reaching out to and bonding with their predecessors. In this fraternity all but Nixon and Carter instinctively observe the etiquette. The searing burdens of the office forge deep understandings that transcend politics and personalities. Even news junkies are likely to have fresh insights into the characters of our presidents from Hoover to Obama (excepting Roosevelt who, of course, never lived to join the club).

Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains

This short book (272 pp.) is two books in one. In the first Kidder masterfully tells Deo’s mind-bending story of escape from the horrors of genocide only to endure the horrors of NYC. In the second he explains how he was able to learn Deo’s story in such incredible detail. For detail is Kidder’s forte. He digs into his material like no other writer, and he produces masterpieces that pull you in or leave you exhausted from their detail. I loved this book and his House.

I was deeply moved by the amazing kindness of the three New Yorkers who reached out to Deo and enabled him to thrive and return to his homeland on missions of mercy. After reading the book, do not miss the brief online interviews of three who made the difference between Deo’s barely existing and achieving great good:

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of my Heart

Flawless writing, lovely story, nice mix of dreamy and tough. A high-quality beach read. More YA than literary. Oh, the horrors of rigid class lines and the resulting oppression; of arranged marriages and nasty mothers-in-law and sons who are under their mothers’ thumbs; and the personal and cultural losses of emigration to the USA.

Oh, how quickly two months can zoom by! The greatest challenge of writing a blog. Impossible to post often enough.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas

Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas

Kantor is fascinated by ambition, power, gender and by the interplay of public and private lives, and these themes suffuse this brutal, unflinching summary of the Obamas’ first 2 ½ years in the White House. As an avid Obama supporter since I finished his memoir, Dreams from My Father, I come away even more admiring of this man and his amazing wife. They have worked so hard all their lives—like Condi Rice and others—to succeed in our white world, and they have remained idealistic to the core in spite of their challenges in the Presidency. It is astonishing that they have done as well as they have in today’s sleazy politics.

I hope Kantor wins significant recognition for this remarkable book—in spite of her gender. It seems to me that the media has dismissed it and that it is not on the best seller list has more to do with her gender than with the quality of this fine book.

I hope Obama’s enemies read it literally as I did and don’t pounce on it for ammunition in their never-ending efforts to discredit him. He is not perfect but he and his wife deserve our support for the work they are doing on our behalf.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Brother Gardeners

Andrea Wulf's The Brother Gardeners: 
Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession

In the 18th century a number of wealthy men raced to collect plants new to England. Andrea Wulf has chosen to focus on one Peter Collinson and his Pennsylvania collector John Bartram and on Joseph Banks and his botanist Daniel Solander who was a protege of Carl Linnaeus in Sweden. These men and their many colleagues created a nation of gardeners and a style of landscaping that remains with us today. Wulf does their stories justice. A great book.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Now, to see the movie...

Kaui Hart Hemmings' The Descendants

The movie got a lot of play so I bought the book. It's an okay "beach read." It's hard to empathize with an absent father who tries to connect with his two bratty daughters as their mother lies dying. There's not much character development and the arc of the story is predictable.The movie probably has some lovely scenes of Hawaii not to mention George Clooney. What's not to like?

Living in Iran

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

You don't have to have read Lolita to enjoy this book but it would help to have more than a nodding acquaintance with the novels of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen.This is a challenging book for those of us who weren't lit majors. Nafisi loosely structures her memoir around her private seminars with seven young Iranian women who love English-language novels.She teaches the reader her approach to literature, but far more importantly, she helps the reader get a sense of the great losses she and her students felt after the Iranian revolution. Iran's intellectuals were shocked and helpless as they watched the country become a radical theocracy with Sharia law. Nafisi was a thoroughly westernized upper-class Iranian woman who returned to Iran to teach only to be forced to wear the veil and endure the extreme politics flowing from the worst form of Islam.

No thinking woman can read this book without being deeply moved.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table

Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table

Ondaatje is one of our most gifted writers working today. I enjoyed this novel for its exquisite prose. He writes so beautifully without going over the top. At first I'd understood it was semi-autobiographical and that was what most interested me, but then I saw an interview in which he stated flatly that it was not at all that. So I stepped away for several days, but when I took it up again I was pulled into his reverie with new insights. Without relating to the characters one is still brought to see relevances to the arc of one's life.

Friday, January 27, 2012

from Tim T

John Steinbeck's The Dubious Battle
Wow! a great book. I have never gotten into Steinbeck until this one. A great read about apple farmers and the workers who pick.

James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable:
Why He Died and Why it Matters
I’m too young to remember Roosevelt or Truman, but I do remember Ike, and I remember both my high school and college American history teachers impressing upon us his famous warning re the machinations of our military-industrial complex. And Miss Smith gave me a favorable opinion of Ike and his administrative skill in running our country. This book gave me a different slant on him. His passive style demonstrates how little courage he had for dealing with that complex. How cowardly to handoff his presidency to JFK leaving the mess behind.
Over the years I refused to get caught up in any of the various conspiracy theories swirling around JFK’s assassination, but a kindly staffer at Alameda’s Books, Inc. persuaded me that I ought to read this book. It was truly an eye opener. Douglass thoroughly documents all his findings and he convinced me that our own CIA did murder JFK. What a blot on our history. Read the book and decide for yourself.

Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains
Kidder is one of my favorite authors, and this must be one of his best books. It is really two short books in one. The first is the amazingly detailed account of a young man’s survival of the genocides of Burundi and Rwanda—yes, his escape threw him into the terrors of both—and nearly as terrifying, his survival in Manhattan. Deo’s is an extraordinary tale, and just when you’re sure that Kidder cannot know his every move, Part Two explains just how he does, in fact, know. Because I was so ignorant of the ethnic differences between the Hutus and Tutsis, I first read “Some Historical Notes” at the end of the book first, and that was helpful.

Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor
Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroines, and I was happy to read this Brit’s well-researched account of her marriage to Franklin. This subject will always be an enigma, but Rowley was thorough in seeking to understand her sources. Truly, they were a unique couple.

Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: 
Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
Millard has done her research and has written a spellbinding tale of Roosevelt’s dangerous exploration of an uncharted river that feeds the Amazon.  It’s hard to imagine how the party could have been so ill prepared for this misadventure in the spring of 1914. More and more, I’m coming to appreciate history sideways through stories. Millard quickly sketches the context of Roosevelt’s political failure and of the US relationship with Latin America and she doesn’t stint on developing the characters of the expedition. This book is a treasure.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Friends helping friends: a special post

Dear Friends, old and new,

2012 is here already and its been another good reading year. It has become a ritual of mine to send a list of books I've read in the past year to all my friends.   (I lost my original list earlier today as I was mailing it out  - it went into the cosmos!   Boy, was I mad!  I finally just re-hashed it from a partial list I'd written in my journal and library receipts I still had. )  
Some books were fantastic, some not so good, but all were worth reading for the subject matter or an alternate view on life, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.  I read books set in different countries, different eras;  to learn of adventures and ways of life I could never experience myself and some of these adventures are really fun, some deep and dark where no human being should have to go.   Reading books is a reality of its own.    ENJOY .
BLINDED  -  STEPHEN WHITE.  Another good one in his crime series of Alan Gregory the psychologist.
GOLDENGROVE  -  FRANCINE PROSE.    I love her books. This one about a young girl growing into womanhood.
*CUTTING FOR STONE -  ABRAHAM VERGHESE.    Utterly beautiful story, deep and profound  about twin brothers, set in Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie.
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL  -  PHILLIPA GREGORY.   A little long-winded, especially the trials and tribulations of getting Mary Boleyn into Henry VIII's bed!
MANNER OF DEATH  -  STEPHEN WHITE.   An earlier novel in the Alan Gregory series.
*THE HELP  - KATHRYN STOCKETT.    I read this before the film came out.  Truly amazing story about apartheid and the class system of the Deep South.
LONGITUDE  - DAVA SOBEL.    Non-fiction.  How John Harrison, a clock-maker, came to devise the current system of time changes around the world so navigators would know what time it was at any location at sea. A curious little book.
THE SIEGE  -  STEPHEN WHITE.  Another psychological crime thriller from the perspective of the police guy in the previous books, Sam Purdy.
3001 - THE FINAL ODYSSEY  -  ARCHUR C. CLARKE.    Definitely Final !
THE CHARMING QUIRKS OF OTHERS -  ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH.   This guy writes such superb lighthearted stories;  another in his Isabel Dalhousie, philosophy series, set in Edinburgh.  Easy reading.
*AWAKENING THE SLEEPING TIGER  -   LIU YU and DAWN CERF.   Liu Yu's memoir about her rugged training as a martial arts athlete as a young girl in Mao Tse Tung's China, the politics of it all, how it affected her and her family, and how devastating it was not to be able to speak one's mind.   Liu Yu now lives in San Luis Obispo, CA and runs a Yoga/Martial Arts center.
HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY  -  AUDREY NIFFENEGGER.  Fascinating unusual 'ghost' story about twins and other realities, set in London.  (Her follow-up to The Time-Traveler's Wife which was amazing).
*THE SATURDAY BIG TENT WEDDING PARTY  -  ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH.  Another superb story in his beautiful Botswana series with Mme Ramotswe the private investigator.  (You really need to read each of his book series in order to get to know the characters, but can be read on their own too).
*THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS -  (non-fiction) -  REBECCA SKLOOTS.   A profoundly moving book about how a black woman's cancer cells have been used for research since 1951, and the impact it had on her family who didn't know for a long time they were being used.
AWAY FROM HER -  ALICE MUNRO.     One of the best short story writers of our time. Sweet story.
THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR  - LISA GOLDSTEIN  -  Historical Fiction  -  Fascinating story set in the late 16th century Prague and Spain and England,  about what happened when (if)  Dr. John Dee, astrologer/alchemist met Rabbi Judah Loew, the creator of the golem.
*SARAH'S KEY -  TATIANA DE ROSNAY.  The shocking and profound story told from the point of view of a modern-day journalist researching what became of one girl and her family in Paris who were taken by French police on July 16, 1942, the Vel d'hivre,  by order of the Nazis.   (I read this before the film came out).
*THE HORNS OF MOSES  -  DAVID BRANDIN    An exciting fast-paced story about terrorism and the minds of those who arrange suicide bombings, and the. Mainly set in Israel.   (Thank you David.  L'Chaim to you!)
*THE DISCOVERY OF CHOCOLATE  -  JAMES RUNCIE.   (historical fiction).   Read this at your peril  - with your favorite chocolates by your side!   A sumptuous, sensual ride through history on the divine nuances of chocolate making   -  Recipes included!
*ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE  -  GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ.    I wish I could write like this;  talk about stream-of-consciousness writing.....this is it.  Why have I never read this before???  Depth, power, a family history through the years.  A marvel.    (I read almost half of "Love in the Time of Cholera", but somehow got bogged down with it!)
THE TENTH SONG  -    Naomi Ragen       A tragedy in an American family leads the daughter to a commune in Israel.
IN THE STACKS -  short stories about Libraries and Librarians.  It includes "The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges.  Also Alice Munro and Ray Bradbury stories.
A MATCH TO THE HEART - GRETEL ERLICH.    (Memoir).  True story about a woman life after being struck be lightning twice.  Set mainly around Santa Barbara, CA  area.
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK  -  ALICE MUNRO.    A fictionalized history in short story form  of Munro's ancestors who left Scotland and journeyed to Canada.  Fascinating and more truth than fiction, I feel.
*THE ELEPHANT KEEPER  - CHRISTOPHER NICHOLSON.    Such a sweet, gentle story set in late 18th century England.  A lovable Elephant is the heroine, and her master who can 'talk' with her and understand her.  (I got this at Nan's Pre-owned books across the road from where we live, and took it on my NM trip).
THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA  -  ADRIENNE McDONNELL.   Interesting subject matter -about a doctor who helps couples with fertility issues at the turn of the 20th century, and falls in love with a woman opera singer.
*RUNAWAY  -  stories.  -  ALICE MUNRO.    These stories are more like mini-novels.  Profound, with twists of fate.   She subtly lets you into the lives of her characters so that you feel you've known them all your life. 
I also read poems now and then, especially from The Writer's Almanac, spoken by Garrison Keillor,  which one can get on-line through American Public Media. And also the occasional story in The New Yorker magazine.
Here's a teaser for 2012......currently reading:  "AFTER DARK" by HARUKI MURAKAMI.  a dark off-kilter tale about two sisters.    I've been meaning to read some of his work all year. A special powerful writer.

Frank Schaeffer’s Sex, Mom, & God

This is a book to avoid. The author’s self-indulgent memoir is boring and tangled. Unfortunately, he scares me to death. I was unaware how many decades the Hunt brothers and their allies have been courting evangelical pastors into duping their congregations to vote Republican to increase the power of the very rich in our government. I was unaware the meanings of their code words. Words that I take as innocent or at least not harmful are words to inflame these voters and get them to the polls to vote Republican. What a sad state of affairs.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Phyllis Theroux’ The Journal Keeper: A Memoir

There are undoubtedly as many journal keeping styles as there are journal keepers. Theroux advises that “Your journal should be a wise friend who helps you create your own enlightenment.”   And she shows the reader just how she does that in this charming memoir. She selects important moments—large and small—of her days, reflects on them, and teases out helpful insights to give her life meaning. She is a shining example of living our best lives as we age. The beauty of her writing polishes the nuggets of her wisdom.

David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife:  A Novel

“The pretty ones never get out” of the First’s isolated polygamists’ towns, and they kick the boys out to reduce their competition. Ebershoff manages to take you into one of these places and reveals how these cults work. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s happening today in the hinterlands of Utah and Arizona.

While his writing is mediocre, he manages to carry two storylines in parallel and give the reader a sense of the founding of the Mormons. I would have preferred a good essay to this 507-page book.

McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

If you can get past his beginning, dull pages, this is a great book. McCullough uses memoirs, letters, and diaries to describe Americans’ experiences living in Paris in the 19th century. Those who left such writings were mostly writers and artists with the notable exception of Elihu Washburne who was the American ambassador to France under President Grant.