Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: The God Engines

This book - The God Engines by John Scalzi - was intense. Normally, half of my review of a novella or short story is kvetching that the story was too short, the author should have delved deeper, etc, etc. Sure, Scalzi probably could have gone more in depth and revealed more about the world he's built here but I'm not sure I'd want to go any deeper. This is a book about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. It was intriguing and a good read, but not something I think I'll read again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review: Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is a memoir by President Barack Obama, written after he was the first African-American elected president of the Harvard Law Review. It was first published in 1995, before his first political campaign, and was republished in 2004, during his U.S .Senate race. So while there are politics in this book, it is not about his life as a politician. And unlike so many of the books politicians put out during a campaign, it is still interesting to read when the race is over.

The outlines of President Obama's life are well-known: his white mother from Kansas and his black father from Kenya met in college in Hawai'i, married, and had him. Soon after, his father left, first to go to Harvard, then back to Africa, and only returned for a month when Barack Jr was 10. Barack Sr. died without his son having gotten to know him as an adult.

Dreams from My Father can be read on two primary levels: one is simply as a man's life story. Obama's young life was somewhat unusual - growing up in Hawai'i and Indonesia, time as a community organizer in Chicago, family in Kenya - but not, I think, so extraordinary as to be incomprehensible. (It's not like he grew up on Mars, after all.)

The other way one can read this book is as a meditation on race in America. Obama explores what was like to grow up as a black man, even though his white mother and grandparents raised him. Along the way, he discusses how race effects the way a person is viewed in this country and what it means to straddle different cultures, not just brown vs. white, but African vs. American.

I found Dreams from My Father to be an interested, thought-provoking read. Would it be as interesting if you didn't know this young man would grow up to be President? I believe so.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Outliers

I really enjoyed Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of this book is, what makes high-achievers (and low achievers, really) different? Gladwell argues that the answer lies much less in their innate talent (or faults), and more in the atmosphere surrounding them - their culture, family, upbringing, etc. Some of these factors may be obvious - your parents education level has a huge impact on you, which makes sense - and many are not. I was particularly interested in his examination of the "Culture of Honor" and why the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud was not the rarity I thought (for more, here's an excerpt from Outliers).

I will say that I had heard Gladwell interviewed about this book several times, so some of it didn't feel fresh to me. For example, I had heard quite a bit about the part of the book dedicated to exploring why almost no star hockey players are born in the fall. Still, I thought it was interest and it certainly confirmed my thought that the birthday cutoff for kindergarten should be moved up from the typical December deadline (something our local school system has started doing for budget reasons).

Some readers might complain that Gladwell is oversimplifying complex social issues. They may be right. But I found this to be a fascinating look at a complicated question.

Outliers: The Story of Success was released in paperback today (June 7).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Series Thoughts: Anne of Green Gables

While I was out on maternity leave, I re-read the entire Anne of Green Gables series. I really enjoyed reading the series but something struck me that I'd never thought of before: these books are kind of sad. Maybe its that I was just recently a mother myself but the shear quantity of dead people (especially mothers and babies) struck me. After my husband found me crying while reading for about the fourth time (granted, postpartum hormones were probably not helping), he asked me "are you sure these are supposed to be kids books?" None of this is to say that you shouldn't read Anne of Green Gables or its sequels yourself or to your child. They really are quite charming and I love Anne as much now as I did when I first read the series.

I was surprised by how much I loved the last book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside. This book focuses not on Anne, but onto Anne's youngest daughter Rilla. It takes place during World War I and has a more serious tone than the early books. Maybe this is just me, but I know so little about WWI that I had to look up many of the references in this book - this could have been annoying, but I enjoyed getting the history lesson. (Per Wikipedia, Rilla of Ingleside is "the only Canadian novel written from a women's perspective about the First World War by a contemporary.")

There's something else that I realized for the first time on this go-round through these books: the chronological order is not the same as the published order. For example, Rilla of Ingleside was published sixth, but is the last/eighth book chronologically. Normally I am a firm believer in reading books in publication order (see Chronicles of Narnia, etc) but I liked reading these chronologically. It was like getting to watch kids grow up. There were some odd moments by reading them this way. For example, the love letters between Anne and her beau (my lame attempt to not spoil something that everyone in the world knows anyway) were published in the (mostly-epistolary) Anne of Windy Poplars. Chronologically, this book is fourth in the series, but it was the seventh book published. Those love letters are referenced in Anne's House of Dreams (book 5) in such a way, I think, to make them sound private, which was weird since I had just read them. But that is a pretty minor point. What do you think? Should you read these books in published or chronological order?

Find books by L.M. Montgomery on Project Gutenberg or Amazon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alvar Aalto

There's a very nice slideshow up on Slate today about the residential design of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto: A Low-Key High Modernist: The unpretentious houses of Alvar Aalto. Villa Mairea is one of my favorite buildings, but I also loved the last house in the show. I have the exposed brick in my house - now I need a lovely little reading corner like that!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: My Man Jeeves

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse is one of those books that everyone says is funny, but I'm always suspicious that it actually is. So, get this - it is! My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight short stories by Wodehouse -- half feature the perfect* butler Jeeves and his employer, Bertie Wooster, while the others are about Reggie Pepper, an early prototype for Wooster. While I definitely preferred the Jeeves stories over the Pepper ones, the whole book is quite amusing. And short! Just the perfect thing to read between diaper changes and late night feedings, when your brain is too frazzled to read anything more serious. Or maybe that's just me.

Buy My Man Jeeves on Amazon or download free at Project Gutenberg.

*Edited for bad writing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is about two sisters, one a successful, practical-minded business woman, and one a somewhat flighty perpetual grad student, as they navigate life and love during the dot-com boom/bust and the 9/11 attacks. It is, I believe, a modern day retelling of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (not having read the Austen, I'll take everyone's word but the plotline seems very Austen-y to me.) This is the second book I've read by Goodman, after Kaaterskill Falls, and I much preferred it to the earlier work. Maybe that's because it is set in Berkeley, CA and Cambridge, MA, two places with which I am quite familiar.

I read this book for my book club and we had an interesting discussion about it. One of the women in my group had experiences that were very similar to the book's main characters - MIT, Berkeley, worked at a start-up, and so on. She said that at first, she liked that someone had written a book about these experiences, but as the book went on, it was all just a little off - just not quite right about what that time and places were like.

I didn't really love The Cookbook Collector in totality - it tried to do a lot with its big cast and broad scope and just ended up being spotty. But there were pieces - little moments, like someone eating a peach - that I did love. It was a worthwhile book, though not one I'd call a classic.

The paperback will be released on July 12, 2011. Pre-order The Cookbook Collector: A Novel or buy The Cookbook Collector: A Novel on Amazon now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: Heidi

Yodelay, yodelay, yodelayheehoo! There's no actual yodelling in Heidi, the classic children's novel by Johanna Spyri. Nor does a cherubic Shirley Temple pop out to say all the charming platitudes that the little Swiss girl spouts during the book. But otherwise, it was much like I remembered it from reading it in my younger days.

Orphaned at an early age, Heidi is sent to live with her curmudgeon of a grandfather high in the Swiss Alps. But Heidi soon finds that things are not always what others say they are, makes friends with her grandfather, and happily runs wild in the glorious mountains with the goat boy, Peter, and his goats.


Suddenly her aunt returns, and Heidi finds herself confined in the city to be companion to the invalid Klara. But Heidi is bitterly unhappy away from her grandfather and the outdoor life she has grown to love.

There's actually a lot in common between this book, which I enjoyed, and The Secret Garden, which I did not (link goes to my recent review). I don't know what the difference was. For example, where I found Colin in The Secret Garden to be insufferable, I thought Klara was quite sweet. This is definitely a kids' book - I don't expect to see it suddenly become hot beach reading - but I thought it was charming to read again. Buy Heidi on Amazon or download free at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Bird by Bird

It seems like Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott took me forever to finish. I started it eagerly - I had heard so many good things about it and the beginning was great. I just loved the story that inspired the title:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'
But after that great start, this book felt very scattered, like a series of unconnected essays rather than a coherent thought. It was easy to read just a little bit then put down - unfortunately, it was just as easy to forget to pick up again. As I said, I loved the story behind the title, but the rest of the book didn't live up to that promise.

Buy Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life on Amazon.

My apologies to those of you who accidentally saw this in your feed reader last week - I had some bumps in trying to get it to publish correctly!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Update

This morning, little M rolled over! She's done it before, sort of by accident, but this morning she did it three times in a row! M is four months old now and just gorgeous. Here she is, looking rather thoughtful and playing with her favorite toy. (Don't worry - she's in her car seat, but she's not in the car. I'm not letting her ride around without her belt fastened.) Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: The Secret Garden

Here are my thoughts on The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in one sentence: Not as good as I remembered it. Doesn't that suck?

For those of you who haven't read it, or read it so long ago you can't remember it: Contrary little Mary is sent to live with a relative on the Yorkshire Moors after her parents and household die in India. The spoiled girl has never even dressed herself and is quite friendless. But with the help of two boys, a gardener, and an abandoned garden, she becomes a new person.

Clearly, I have become a jaded, terrible person, one who can't even enjoy such a magical story. I felt terrible for Mary and was happy about her transformation - but found angelic Dickon to be annoying and Colin to be insufferable. That said, I loved this book when I was a girl so hopefully someday, if I read this to my little M, I'll be able to enjoy it through her again. Until then, I think I'm too old to enjoy this one.

Buy The Secret Garden on Amazon. Or do what I did, and download it free via Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Pritzker

As you've probably heard by now, the winner of the 2011 the Pritzker Prize has been announced: Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. I am not too familiar with him, to be honest, but the images I've seen of his work are striking.

I have a feeling I posted this link last year, when they announced who won the Pritzker, but I think it bears repeating:
Architecture Is a Team Sport: So why do they award the Pritzker Prize to just one person?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: The Order of the Odd Fish

Before I even start the review, I'll make a disclaimer that my sister gave me The Order of Odd-Fish and it was written by a friend of hers, James Kennedy. I don't think I've met him, though, so no bias here. Moving on...

Jo Larouche, age 13, was found as a baby with this note: This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a dangerous baby. Despite the warning, Jo leads as normal a life as possible with her eccentric Aunt Lily- until she's transported to the bizarre world of Eldritch City. There, now installed as a member of the Order of Odd-Fish, Jo learns the truth about who she is and why she has to confront the Belgian Prankster, who is either a villain or the world's scariest comedian.

When my sister gave me the book, I didn't know what to think, actually. The cover was cute but strange, the title was definitely offbeat and the first chapters decidedly weird. It was, no doubt, an odd book. But as I kept reading, I found myself pulled in, really wanting to find out who Jo is and how she will handle the truly awful circumstances thrust on her. Despite the bizarre trappings of the story, at the heart there is a sweet girl making difficult decisions in an unfamiliar context. I rather enjoyed it.

Buy The Order of Odd-Fish on Amazon.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Back!

Maternity leave has come to an end and I am back to work (part-time at first), so with it, I've decided to try to blog again. Starting Monday, I plan to post a review or two a week, plus other items of interest. I have no plans to post pictures of the baby here, however, so if you'd like to see more of her, please find me on Facebook instead. Or drop me an email and I'll be happy to go on (and on!) about how adorable and perfect she is.