The subject matter of this book - namely the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 and is one of the greatest natural disasters...moreThe subject matter of this book - namely the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 and is one of the greatest natural disasters of all times - was intriguing to me but I chose this book almost entirely because of its author, Erik Larson. After reading "The Devil in the White City" a few years ago, I resolved to read all of Larson's novels. I figured this would not be a tough task, given that he's written 6 novels to date. 2 down, 4 to go and I do intend to read the other 4 and am most enthused by "The Garden of Beasts" about Hitler's Germany.
It was interesting to see the evolution in Larson's writing reading this book, which was published in 1999 - four years before the 2003 publication of "Devil in the White City." There are so many elements of Larson's writing that I love from "Devil" present in this book. First, his intense focus on a historical event - here the Galveston hurricane, in "Devil" it's the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Also present in both books is the beautiful way in which Larson writes historical non-fiction like fiction. This book dragged a bit for me at the beginning but once I reached Part III (around page 140 of my version) where the hurricane is upon the city, it definitely picked up and Larson's account of how the Galveston residents rode out the storm and survived or didn't was fairly affecting. Larson's ability to entertain while teaching is definitely a gift. Third, Larson's decision to view this event primarily from the vantage point of one or two significant real-life historical figures is definitely a Larson hallmark of the two books I have read. Here, we primarily follow the story of meteorologist Isaac Cline, a young, rising star in the Weather Bureau at the turn of the century who comes across as something of a boy scout (obey they master above all). I think one of the reasons this book did not work for me nearly as well as "Devil" is because I found Cline only somewhat interesting as a narrator and found him far less fleshed out as a person than the murderer, H. H. Holmes in "Devil." While Holmes was complex and nuanced, Cline comes across as almost one-dimensional.
All that being said, I am glad to have read "Isaac's Storm" and was very entertained by the rivalry between the U.S. and Cuban weather services in Havana and by the arrogance and enormity of the errors committed by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The book explains some of the science behind hurricanes (see especially, the 3 page chapter entitled "Spiderwebs and Ice" at pages 87-89) and was a quick, informative read. (less)
Lean In is a powerful book that comes at a very fortuitous time for me - namely, as I am pregnant with my first child and contemplating my desire to b...moreLean In is a powerful book that comes at a very fortuitous time for me - namely, as I am pregnant with my first child and contemplating my desire to be a working mother and be brilliant at both work and as a mom. For many women in my generation and social circle (Generation X - but on the cusp of Gen Y), we have waited longer than those who came before us to get married and have children, finishing college and graduate school, traveling, starting careers and only then getting married or starting a family. This means we have more at stake professionally and I hope more of us will stay at the table and lean in; Sandberg's message to do so, and why it matters that we do, really hit home.
I did not find Sheryl Sandberg's book revolutionary (as others have noted, it covers somewhat familiar topics) but I found it incredibly important and I was impressed at how Sandberg opened herself up and made this story personal. Of all the topics covered, the chapter entitled "Don't Leave Before You Leave" resonated with me the most and was the most thought-provoking. Sandberg's point here (as I saw it) is to be fully present in work and to take on every opportunity that comes your way (and seek out other opportunities) without fear. Foot fully on the gas until the time is necessary to back off. This resonated with me because it is something I think I have done throughout my career and looking back, is likely why I feel so invested in my career and so satisfied by it. But I recognized that as soon as I became pregnant, I eased off the gas just a tad. I think Sandberg would say this is okay - that the time to ease off is when these things are happening, rather than before they occur/planning for them as possibilities, but it was good to be aware that I was doing this, which I was not fully cognizant of doing prior to reading this book.
Sheryl Sandberg is an important voice for women and I am truly glad to have read her story. Well worth a read.(less)
**spoiler alert** Cloud Atlas is an ambitious work of fiction spanning genres, centuries, continents and ideas. As should be clear from my rating, I f...more**spoiler alert** Cloud Atlas is an ambitious work of fiction spanning genres, centuries, continents and ideas. As should be clear from my rating, I found it thoroughly impressive.
The book is organized chronologically like a group of matryoshka nesting dolls; it opens crossing the Pacific Ocean in the 1840s in the hands of an American notary/lawyer and travels all the way to a post-apocalyptic distant future where something (left ambiguous) has tripped "the fall" and language and the way of life have actually reverted back to a pre-1840 way of life. We encounter six individual narrators and read half their tale for the first 5 before moving on to the next. When we reach the most distant future, the narrator (Zachry) weaves his entire tale and then we move backwards through time. Those we meet are as follows:
-Adam Ewing: Nov 7 to Dec 8 (likely 1849) - The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (American notary from San Francisco who is traveling from the Chatham Islands near New Zealand to San Francisco)
-Robert Frobisher (June 29, 1931 to September 28, 1931) - Letters from Zedelghem (a British musician who licks his wounds having been disinherited by his father and departs Cambridge for the estate of a famed English composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, who hasn't composed new work since the 1920s, but lives in a beautiful estate in Belgium, south of Bruges).
-Luisa Rey (1970s) - Half-Lives: Ther First Luisa Rey Mystery (a journalist for a publication called Spy Glass who is based in the fictional Buenas Yerbas, California stumbles upon the coverup of a nuclear power plant)
-Timothy Cavendish (present day/c 2004)- The Ghastley Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (a vanity publisher finds his stock rises considerably when the author of his latest book commits an audacious murder at a literary gathering)
-Sonmi ~451 (approx. 2144) - An Orison of Sonmi~451 (a fabricant, a genetically engineered human, residing in Neo Seoul, South Korea, is a server at a diner known as Papa Song's until she "ascends" and is coopted by Union - a revolutionary group aimed at brining down Nea So Copros. By this time, many parts of the earth have been "deadlanded" or flooded and thus, become uninhabitable; Bonus - we finally have flying cars!)
-Zachry (approx 25th C.) - Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After (a young man whom I imagine to be in this 20s during most of the story lives in "Big I" or Hawaii after the fall where much of humanity has died and those who remains live in an agrarian, almost hunter-gatherer economy, ride horses, are menaced by Kona, and pray to - you guessed it - Sonmi).
(then we move backwards through the 2nd half of each story) -Sonmi~451: Part 2 -Timothy Cavendish: Part 2 -Luisa Rey: Part 2 -Robert Frobisher: Part 2 (October 10, 1931 to December 12, 1931) -Adam Ewing: Part 2 (December 8 to January 13 - (likely 1849 to 1850)
I have seen two frequest criticisms of this book, neither of which I agree with entirely. The first is that the prose in Sloosha's Crossin' is unnecessarily hard to understand. I must admit the dialogue took some getting used to and I groaned my way through the first 15 pages or so but after that, it ceased to register - much like subtitles on a movie - and I really enjoyed the world that is weaved in this chapter. I think if one just keeps reading, the language becomes intelligble.
The second criticism is that there is not enough of a connection between the six parts of the Cloud Atlas. First, need there be an airtight connection? Couldn't this be a collection of stories chronicling our past, present and possible future to get one thinking about where we have been (pre-Civil War adventures of Adam Ewing and slavery; between-the-war life in 1930s Europe; 1970s era sexism), where we are and where we may be heading? But more importantly, I think there is a connection even beyond the admittedly weak reincarnation/comet birthmark story presented in the novel and the theme to my mind is this: Dare to disturb the established order.
This works more strongly in some stories (Ewing, Frobisher, Sonmi) than others but I think it's there all along: -Adam Ewing - Abolition. As Ewing says at the very end of the book, despite his father-in-law's misgivings that the established order dictates an order of the races, he owes his life to "a self-freed slave [Autua]" & "must begin somewhere" to create a world that he wants his son to inherit, not one that he fears he shall inherit. Autua himself all dares to fight the established order and trust that he is capable of working alongside the sailors and performing at their level despite the prevailing wisdom of his decade of a natural hierarchy of humanity. -Robert Frobisher - Homosexuality. I believe that RF takes his life at the end just before his 25th birthday, shortly after seeing the love of his life (Sixsmith) because he cannot conceive of a world in which they can be together and he does not dare to disturb the established order. However, his love then appears in the next tale where he does dare to disturb the established order of the 2oth century - i.e. corporations reign supreme. -Luisa Rey - Sexism / Corporate Power. "Ms." Rey is clearly a testament to the emerging working woman who is claiming her place alongside men in the workplace. She and Sixsmith, who plays a major part in this story as well as the last (Frobisher) publishes a report that costs him his life to unveil the secret of a nuclear power plant. He dares to fight the established order of corporate America - keep quiet and you shall live richly, if with an unquiet conscience. -Timothy Cavendish: Aging. I admit this is the least clear to me how it fits the theme - perhaps Mitchell or I am blinded by an inherent bias not to see the problems with one's own era althought many of the problems - inequality among different races or religions, homosexuality, even sexism (think: Lily Ledbetter) are still very much alive in our present day. But I would tie this in as a commentary on aging.
It has been a long time since a book made me feel as deeply as this book did.
Franzen creates incredibly believable characters that worm themselves in...moreIt has been a long time since a book made me feel as deeply as this book did.
Franzen creates incredibly believable characters that worm themselves inside you and then exist - sometimes quite quietly and other times kicking up a storm. There were moments when I literally detested every character in this book and found reading about Richard Katz (hardly a pillar of morality) to be a relief. There were other times that I felt such pain for the characters that I realized that I must have come to care about them without even being fully cognizant of doing so.
I just finished the book so am still turning it round in my head but suffice to say for now, I would call this one of the truly great books or our generation, written by one its great authors. (less)
Scanning the reviews, there seems to be a fair bit of disagreement among those who have read this book and I can relate to and agree with multiple vie...moreScanning the reviews, there seems to be a fair bit of disagreement among those who have read this book and I can relate to and agree with multiple viewpoints (perhaps I have taken the chapter on simultaneously embracing two seemingly contradictory ideas a la India to heart). On the bright side of things, Weiner combines a travel log to some unusual and interesting places (Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland) with a happiness study, that is a study of what notions/ways of life/etc. can take or discard from those spots to increase our overall happiness - a worthwhile goal to my mind. To boot, Weiner narrates the whole story in a wry, self-deprecating and humor-filled voice. I enjoy his voice as an author quite a bit and as I read a few chapters aloud to my husband, I found us laughing aloud more than once. While Weiner seems to have accurately self-diagnosed himself as a perennial grump, he's an enjoyable and clearly intelligent grump - the type of person you'd never mind having lunch with.
My gripe with the book is that Weiner's method lacks vigor and depth. His method is to visit a place for 2 weeks and talk to whomever he can, which in some countries, like Iceland, seems like a respectable cross section, while in others, such as Moldova - one old woman not originally from Moldova and a few Peace Corps volunteers - hardly inspires confidence. From a two week jaunt, I am sure Weiner, a trained observer of cultures and life can gather far greater insight than the average person. Yet having lived abroad myself, I'd argue one doesn't really begin to understand another culture/place and especially a concept as complex as happiness, for several months if not longer. My other major frustration in this book was the non-stop quoting of other philosophers, sociologists, and happiness science researchers. It distracted, rather than enhanced, the overall read.
Overall, though I must admit that the book made me think (ironic, since one of Weiner's prescriptions for happiness is not to think too much about it). It also inspired me to take stock of a few things (move to Ashville, NC anyone?). I read it while traveling through Morocco with an interesting group of characters and I found myself often bringing up bits I had just read with the group. Most coincidentally, I was reading the beginning of chapter 3 where Weiner is landing amid the mountains of Paro, Bhutan just as my flight from Fes to Casablance touched down and when we hit a bit of turbulence, I couldn't help but think that we should be glad the mountains were hundreds of yards away, as opposed to one foot outside the window. The book was also a powerful reminder that people can be happy with so little. It made me cognizant during my travels and the Moroccan people, especially in Fes, have that sense of community that makes even those with very little wealth happy.
Recommended for those who love a little glimpse into other cultures. (less)
I was inspired to pick up this book by an upcoming trip to Morocco and it was exactly what I hoped it would be - a nuanced, exhilarating and sometimes...moreI was inspired to pick up this book by an upcoming trip to Morocco and it was exactly what I hoped it would be - a nuanced, exhilarating and sometimes incredibly funny story about life in Casablanca. It is full of gems on adjusting to life in a Muslim country, trying to determine what advice to follow, which individuals to take as friends, and how to assert your own personality while respecting and learning from the local culture.
The book is ostensibly about Shah's decision to move his family from the UK and what he calls "the cycle of zombie commuting and pseudo-friends" to the great open expanses of Casablanca where children (and, one senses, Shah himself) can laugh at full volume, unhindered by Victorian notions of decorum and where life is lived without a safety net. My favorite passage of the whole book is at the very beginning of Chapter 19 (pg. 291) where Shah sums up the move as follows:
"Move to Morocco and it's impossible not to give in to delusion. However hard I tried, I couldn't help but think on a grand scale. In London, we had lived in a microscopic apartment, and as a result, everything I thought about was small in scale. But living at the Caliph's House changed the way I perceived the world. I began to plan enormous expeditions, to dream up subjects for obscure encyclopedias to write, and I became obsessed with using every inch of available space. Part of it was being in Africa. The sky was vast, the landscape severe and unrelenting. There was a sense that anything was possible, that I was no longer held back by the telescoped outlook of Europe. The danger was a motivator, too. One of the reasons to break free from Britain had been to shed the cozy sense of security, the safety net that trapped us and held us back. In Morocco, the lack of safety was an energizing force, but at the same time it was a constant concern. I had seen more accidents than I could count: car wrecks with people half dead lying on the ground . . . For the first time in my life I became completely alert [I contemplated that last sentence for a long time]. In the West, you can drift from day to day in the knowledge that the society will protect you and your children. Any problems, and someone will pick you up and dust you off. But after five minutes on North African soil, I knew it was up to me to guard my family. No one else was watching them."
It is this exact sentiment, ever present behind the daily challenges of restoring the mansion, that kept me engaged. When I picked up the book, my husband asked what (of relevance to me) I hoped to learn about Morocco from a book on restoring an old house. I shrugged and went forward with a hunch that I would pick pearls of wisdom from the narrative and my hunch was right - the whole cast of characters of Moroccan society is laid out with care in this story and Shah takes you through everything from what it is like trying to get anything accomplished during Ramadan (nearly impossible) to the perils of inviting the guardians of the house to live within its walls and the import of dreaming of a man riding a camel into the desert (it means death is near). Within the tapestry of laying zelij (tiles) and cursing Moroccan craftsman who love to start a job full force but are disinclined to ever finish, Shah conveys so much about the daily ins and outs of Moroccan culture. For lovers of travel novels - this is a great one. KNG Oct.-Nov. 2010 (less)
**spoiler alert** Having just finished this book, I am still trying to decide how I feel about it. There are a number of interesting characteristics a...more**spoiler alert** Having just finished this book, I am still trying to decide how I feel about it. There are a number of interesting characteristics about the novel - its restraint, the consistency in little details across the story, and Kathy H. as an at once perceptive and naive narrator. On balance though, I finished feeling underwhelmed. All the pieces are there for it to be a truly remarkable novel but it failed to spark any real emotion, despite the ghastly truth of the story.
There are a few moments where I was on the brink of feeling real emotion - where the characters go looking for Ruth's possible and Ruth confronts them saying they are all made from trash; where Tommy runs into the field screaming - but it is the quick draw of the curtains following these moments and the utter lack of any such outburst from Kathy that ultimately leave me teetering on the edge of emotion without ever really giving way to it. But perhaps that was the whole point. There is a great quote by the Guardian about the book: "This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been." (less)
I started reading this book in a charming little bookstore in Bennington, Vermont on a recent trip north and loved it. Only the rather steep ($22 for...moreI started reading this book in a charming little bookstore in Bennington, Vermont on a recent trip north and loved it. Only the rather steep ($22 for less than 100 pgs) price tag kept me from buying it so if anyone has a second-hand copy they would like to take off their hands, I would love to oblige you. (less)
From the first pages of this work when the elderly titan of industry, Henrik Vanger, receives an annonymous pressed flower marking another year since...moreFrom the first pages of this work when the elderly titan of industry, Henrik Vanger, receives an annonymous pressed flower marking another year since his beloved granddauther disappeared, you know that you are in the hands of a great writer. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is relevant, fast-paced but intricately plotted, and beautifully set. It's a tour de force - geographically, as you are transported across Sweden from Hedeby Island to Stockholm, as well as in character development, plot and pacing. It also manages to examine a number of themes and combine a fascinating murder mystery with financial scandal, courtroom libel drama, and an examination of journalistic moors. The work has some of the most memorable characters to grace a work of fiction in some time, most notably Lisbeth Salander, but also Kalle Blomkvist, Erika Berger, and the Vanger clan. All of these elements combine behind a fascinating story with lots of subplots that are interwoven in a masterful way. I loved this book from start to finish and only wish that Stieg Larsson were still alive - if he were, I know I would be reading him for years to come. (less)
This is an extremely interesting story that dances around the edges of many ethical questions and tugs at our moral compass. The book is brilliant in...moreThis is an extremely interesting story that dances around the edges of many ethical questions and tugs at our moral compass. The book is brilliant in setting up one dilemma after another for its well-intentioned characters and never allowing the reader to rest on too solid of ground. The dynamic between the parents in particular felt very real. While I found the father more likeable (a surprising twist in a book written by a women - I appreciated that Jodi Picoult could write such a sympathetic male character), the mother comes across as an over-worked, taking-everything-on-herself woman, which again, rang incredibly true to what the family dynamic might actually be like in this situation. (less)
Jon Krakauer can get under the skin of a tale like no one I know and there is no one I would rather have narrating an icy ascent into thin air than hi...moreJon Krakauer can get under the skin of a tale like no one I know and there is no one I would rather have narrating an icy ascent into thin air than him. Masterful. (less)
Overall summary: An enthralling story by an incredible writer.
The Devil in the White City is a delicious read - a fascinating nonfiction novel that re...moreOverall summary: An enthralling story by an incredible writer.
The Devil in the White City is a delicious read - a fascinating nonfiction novel that reads like the best kind of fiction. After reading this, I am immediately a fan of Erik Larson and I agree with the critics who say that of everyone writing nonfiction today, he has the most fun (and is the most fun to read).
I am admittedly a little late to the party - the book was published almost a decade ago - but the book loses nothing over time and with this nonfiction novel, I think Larson has accomplished what Truman Capote tried, but to my mind failed to do, with "In Cold Blood". The story centers on the period in Chicago (and in America) leading up to the world's fair - the "World's Columbian Exposition" - in 1893, an era that the author, Erik Larson, immediately made me nostalgic to have lived in even as he explained the distinct perils of living in Chicago at the turn of the previous century (e.g. streetcars fell from drawbridges; fires took a dozen lives a day, and some more grotesque ways to meet an early death that I won't hover over here). The story opens with one of the two protagonists, Daniel Burnham - the architect of the White City - sailing across the Atlantic on the R.M.S. Olympic on the very night that the Titanic meets its icy death - and thus does Larson immediately thrust you into this era of opulence, tragedy, and big dreams. Larson made me wish I could step back in time to experience the sense of invention and aspiration that permeates the book. The world's fair not only brought about one of the greatest combinations of creators the U.S. had ever seen - architects Charles McKim (of McKim, Mead & White - architects of the original Penn station; state capital buildings and Columbia University) and Daniel Burhnam (architect of Union Station in Washington, D.C. and the Flatiron Building in NY), but also everyone from the painter Francis Millet and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who had designed Central Park) to Buffalo Bill. To have all of these people in one place creating "the white city" is an enthralling thought. Thus, it's not surprising that the fair was the creative spark that lead to the invention of Cracker Jacks, Shredded Weight, and the Ferris Wheel and it likely influenced others, such as Walt Disney (whose father helped build the fair) and Frank Lloyd Wright. I had the sense while reading that no one felt inhibited by every-day reality. So what if no one had never created a moving wheel that could withstand wind and rain and circulate hundreds of people simultaneously? To George Washington Ferris and to all the creators behind the fair, the impossible was only what had not yet been attempted.
The book takes us on the emotional tour of trying to create the fair against all odds and I found myself rooting for its creators to succeed - this is how much Larson makes you care about one of the initial civic exhibitions where the U.S. opened its doors to the world.
But lest you get to bogged down in architecture and the high brow, Larson balances his story with a second protagonist - the charmingly haunting Doctor H.H. Holmes who is one of the world's first serial killers and has an M.O. that is both alarming and brilliant. The sections of the book that focus on Dr. Holmes have a somewhat similar feel to Capote's "In True Blood" but unlike Capote's tale, Larson engages his character (Holmes) and his victims so that you care what happens to them and are horrified every time you meet a bright young woman in case she should become Holmes' next victim. I was also strangely fascinated by Holmes. To me, Larson proves that an author can write non-fiction fairly and objectively without detaching himself from his subjects.
All in all, a marvelous book. After this, I am eager to read every book that Larson publishes and go back to read Isaac's Storm, which is his wife's favorite and sounds like a fascinating read.