I'll admit it -- I found this book through the movie (Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson) that is based loosely on the competition it describes. inI'll admit it -- I found this book through the movie (Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson) that is based loosely on the competition it describes. in 1998, three men set out to complete a Big Year -- a year where they saw the most birds possible in North America. All three broke previous records, and all three were as different as they could possibly be: a semi-retired, loud-mouthed contractor from New Jersey who held the previous Big Year record; an athletic corporate executive and former chemist newly retired to Aspen; and a freshly divorced, full-time computer coder at a Maryland nuclear plant. The book details the lengths and costs - in dollars, dignity, and other immeasurables -- that each man endured in his quest to see the most birds in a single year.
Where the movie works hard to make a tale of obscure obsession seem like a normal backdrop for male bonding, the book keeps things quirky and offers constant reminders that it's not just how serious these three guys are about birds that's odd, it's how serious so many people are. $6,000 tour to see single bird through binoculars? Two weeks in an Alaskan cabin so remote it's actually no longer accessible from the mainland United States? Canoe rides through alligator swamps and helicopter quests through Nevada canyons? It all seems like rather charming excess here (the book, which details the $60K one birder spent for his big year, might be a harder sell post-great recession).
Partly this is due to Obmascik's attention to detail -- and his solid decisions about when to deploy the numbers and when to back away and just offer the scenery. It's a fun, light and light-hearted book that doesn't have much comment on what it records beyond, one senses, the bird-watching author's deep envy. That's fun enough for me....more
In Ready Player One, the world is not quite post-apocalyptic -- it's more co-apocalyptic, having slid into hard times by 2040 brought on by everythingIn Ready Player One, the world is not quite post-apocalyptic -- it's more co-apocalyptic, having slid into hard times by 2040 brought on by everything that's happening today. The best escape for everyone is The OASIS, a virtual reality universe that operates its own economy. When the creator of the Oasis, James Halloway, dies, he leaves his entire fortune and control of the universe to whomever can find a hidden Easter egg the Oasis.
Our hero, Wade, attends high school in virtual reality but lives in a dismal stacked trailer skyscraper with what is left of his dysfunctional family. Too poor to really enjoy the greater escapes in the Oasis, Wade spends most of his time enmeshed in 1980s culture, trying to piece together the clues left behind by Halliday, a famous fan of 80s games. Though it's been five years since Halliday died, a breakthrough is imminent, and soon Wade (and his avatar, Parzival) finds himself The center of worldwide attention, hunted by the mega corporations who want to take over and further profiting the Oasis, warily working with and against his closest friend, and suddenly with the possibility of an actual love interest. Along the way, his real and virtual worlds collide in horrible and ultimately satisfying ways as he and his friends and enemies draw closer and closer to Halliday's secret.
This book is built for fans of 80s culture, or those who lived through it and might be getting just a wee bit nostalgic. Ernest Cline, in his novel, uses a constant 80s soundtrack not just to make Halliday's obsession believable but also to provide a grounding for an otherwise unfamiliar world. It isn't until we see Wade bingeing on the unattainable comforts of Family Ties that we understand, fully, his own loneliness; it's through the painstaking recreations of his childhood home that we begin to understand the trauma and triumph of his hero, Halliday, as well.
The references within are reliable and, often, so intensely 80s geeky that casual gamers -- or small children -- from that decade won't catch them all. That doesn't matter much. The book is reminiscent of many recent young adult adventures in that it's main goal isn't to provide the audience with a mystery to solve but instead to offer and adventure they can join.
Wade and his friends are hopelessly nerdy, socially awkward, and used to ridicule in their "real" lives, but in The Oasis, they become better versions of themselves. Not perfect, mind you; one of the book's strengths is in its treatment of differences, particularly in the existence of a bright, popular female character who does not fit the typical mold of skinny-mini beauty in real or virtual life. Revelations of who, exactly, is behind what mask at the end offer one of the book's two major lessons on acceptance.
The other major lesson is more complex, and Cline's attempt to address broader issues of the complex ways in which virtual contact can both enrich and limit our lives is probably what elevated this above just YA lit. Instead of using the whole book to bash online and virtual gaming, he lets the characters both enjoy and despise their created world and their real world equally. I appreciated the gray area he created -- not least through his use of 80s games as old escapes for bad situations....more
Two-thirds of this book held my attention very well: these were the intertwined plot lines describing the intersections of master detective Billy BurnTwo-thirds of this book held my attention very well: these were the intertwined plot lines describing the intersections of master detective Billy Burns and master lawyer Clarence Darrow around the case of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times.
The book's major mystery is, in fact, surrounding this case: in October of 1910, an explosion at the L.A. Times downtown office killed 21 people, and further bombings around the country followed in an episode of domestic terrorism that's largely been forgotten by now. The bombing took place while the Times was railing against organized labor, and so suspicion fell immediately onto their labor opponents -- who charged, just as believably, that the Times and its manufacturing/open shop supporters had set up the violence to frame them.
Although by halfway through the book, the answer to the "whodunnit" is clear, it takes most of the book before the consequences are apparently. I liked reading about Burns's investigation -- both the strong, smart leaps he and his detective corps made and the ruthless pursuit of their criminals. The parts about Darrow were equally compelling, as he's pictured here mostly as a man who is barely able to hold up his head, struggling with inner and outer demons, drawn back into the arena of grand argument so reluctantly that he nearly loses everything (again).
Blume does well to set the scene in the nation, and particularly L.A., at this time, so the stakes of Labor v. Management are well established. The city seems on the verge of riot and despair throughout, which usually makes the case more interesting.
Yet the book didn't, in the end, completely live up to its promise. The subtitle is "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century." Terror and Mystery are covered in the investigation of this Crime of the Century. The Birth of Hollywood is covered through the third strand of the plot: a biographical discussion of the film director D.W. Griffith. Only at the start of the book and at its end does Griffith cross path with the other two major characters, and then, the meetings are completely incidental. He has no active part in the investigation, nor does anyone he know have an active part. His story is meant to be a parallel to the others', to serve as a specific example of the way that the expansion of cinema at this time influenced popular opinions in a new and exciting way.
That same example, though, could have been built without Griffith as a "character" here. The long stretches spent describing his bizarre behaviors -- for instance, terrorizing young women on the sets of his films to provoke emotional reactions, then sleeping with them, despite their minor status -- distract from the rest of the story. When, at the end, there's no grander purpose to knowing that Griffith was a womanizing visionary, I was frustrated with all the time I'd had to spend in his oily company.
It is hard to return to a beloved book of childhood with the same eyes or mind, and I have to give this a 5 star rating mostly from sentiment. Then agIt is hard to return to a beloved book of childhood with the same eyes or mind, and I have to give this a 5 star rating mostly from sentiment. Then again, that's mostly the point, isn't it? It's still fun and I still love Jo....more
This book was delightful -- long enough to develop its characters well, but quickly paced enough to keep the many mysteries it presented always progr
This book was delightful -- long enough to develop its characters well, but quickly paced enough to keep the many mysteries it presented always progressing in a satisfying way. Though the boom starts with a major death -- Charles Carter's magic show is implicated in the sudden death of President Harding -- the real mysteries about Carter are the details of his rather fantastic life. (There was a real Carter the Great of San Francisco origin, but the author here seems to have diverged pretty solidly from the man's life and even some of his performance detail). Carter begins his magic after an atypical wealthy childhood, progresses poorly through the ranks of a traveling show until a stroke of luck -- both good and bad -- gives him a set of career and life breaks.
At the beginning and end of the book, he's a man pursued by the Secret Service, beloved and hated by fellow magicians, in love with strong women, and always trying to find a way to present a show that offers a tragedy with a comic ending. The book follows that dictum nicely.
It's a book firmly set in reality, but the magic never suffers for it.
The final chapter of this book is a perfect summation of the book itself. In fact, so is the front cover, which says the book was supposed to be aboutThe final chapter of this book is a perfect summation of the book itself. In fact, so is the front cover, which says the book was supposed to be about the triumph of Chinese parenting over Western parenting but ended up being a very different story. As ambiguous as that statement is, it's an accurate picture of the book's own ambiguity.
The "story" here is well known: Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale and first-generation Chinese-American, decided to raise her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, the way she had been raised, the "Chinese way" (with the support of her Jewish-American husband). The Chinese method that Chua describes includes a strict regimen of making certain the girls excel in everything they try -- and limiting the things they try outside of school to Mandarin Chinese lessons and, for Sophia, piano, and for Lulu, violin. Both girls are forbidden from attending playdates, hanging out at the mall, playing computers games, going to sleepovers, and nearly all time-consuming outside of school social activities.
Most of Chua's extreme behavior has already been discussed elsewhere: she criticized her daughters vehemently and forcefully, sometimes in public, to encourage their learning (calling one "garbage," the other "disgusting," and on and on); she also threatened them with humiliation. The girls were forced to practice their instruments for hours and hours each day, not each week, to the exclusion of many other fun activities and vacations, and the goals set for them were lofty: both were practicing with university-level instructors by the time they hit puberty and expected to keep pace with adult students. (An entire cottage industry of parenting bloggers was born just to critique Chua herself and these methods. I'm more interested in the book).
The results of Chua's efforts in some ways seem undeniable: both girls became exceptional artists with their chosen instruments who were invited to participate in once-in-a-lifetime concerts and work with gifted teachers; both maintained number one student placements in school; both reached their pre-teen and teen years with none of the major social/behavioral problems that parents would dread (drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll).
Yet Chua has decided that some of her efforts led to a failure, and so the book presents it this way: one of her daughters reaches an age, and a mindset, where she rejects her mother's efforts and wants to follow her own path.
To Chua's credit, she does write herself into a completely villainous role here, detailing the ways in which she has observed how this change has made her daughter happy and the ways in which she continues to scheme and undercut and try to take over this happiness. At the end of the book, she includes a rant that she's gone on when discussing how the book should end with her daughters. The rant is both funny and deeply unflattering, and that is, actually, an effective reflection of large swaths of the book. Amy Chua seems very reasonable -- right up until she doesn't, and part of the book's strangeness is that even when she doesn't seem reasonable, her humorous portrayal of herself often makes you think she knows she's unreasonable.
That's why the last chapter is so jarring. The book, though it claims to be the tale of a mother being humbled, seems instead to be a mother pretending she's been humbled in order to tell her side of a story. Chua tries to walk the delicate line between signaling that she knows her methods were extreme and signaling that, hey, these methods work, so they can't be all bad.
I think the book's biggest flaw is its inability to accept that sometimes pros and cons don't cancel each other out completely. There are bad methods that produce good results, and good methods that produce bad ones, and there are infinite mixtures in between. I don't see Chua's ability to consider this, and it's the book's initial promise of an answer -- and its final failure to provide one OR to provide the admission that there isn't an answer -- that is its greatest weakness....more
This book tells the story of the Yuma 14, 14 men (in a group of 26) who left Mexico on foot and died in the desert of Arizona in 2001. Journalist LuisThis book tells the story of the Yuma 14, 14 men (in a group of 26) who left Mexico on foot and died in the desert of Arizona in 2001. Journalist Luis Alberto Urrea interviewed Border Patrol agents from the area, the families of the victims and survivors, and dozens of others to seek out the full story to how these men came to find such a brutal death in the desert heat. His ultimate conclusion is generous in its scope, as the blame goes from the immediate (the tricks of fate that put the men behind a hapless trio of self-interested trail guides, the so-called Coyotes famous for taking immigrants over the border) to the larger: the faltering Mexican economy and the insatiable desire for cheaper workers in the United States.
The surprise heroes of the story turn out to be the Border Patrol guards from Arizona, the men of the Wellton station who initially found and rescued as many as they could. Urrea does a pretty good job of painting these men realistically, allowing their flaws and faults -- the expected, offensive nicknames they use for immigrants and tales of their illegal treatment -- to shine through as expected. Yet at the end, it's these men who work to organize a better, survivable path for those making the trek. They're very anti-illegal-immigration, but they want systemic change as much as anyone else, and they'd rather it didn't come at a fatal price.
This isn't a new story and it wasn't when it was first told, but it's a graphic reminder of the on-the-ground stakes of the immigration debate. Urrea's question in his final chapter seems to be whether there should be a punishment of death for men who seek a small improvement in their own circumstances by crossing an invisible line. His answer is an emphatic no, and he finds that he's not alone in believing that breaking this law shouldn't come with such a high penalty.
Though the prose is a little self-consciously grandiose at times -- favoring stylish sentence fragments again. And again. And again -- the book is mostly a captivating read. Urrea breaks the story up with history, jumping to and through ancient stories of migration and defeat on the Devil's Highway, the long, lonely stretch of Arizona desert where the walkers suffer. This is interesting material, but it sometimes gets in the way of the action, here; there's a little too much zooming in, then out, then in for the book to hold a reader's attention in the dramatic documentary style that seems to be its goal.
Nevertheless, it's a worthwhile read, a hearty work of journalism and non-fiction that's still relevant -- maybe moreso -- today....more
I picked this book up on the strength of a read excerpt or two, and, for the most part, I wasn't disappointed. Druckerman paints a lively and often amI picked this book up on the strength of a read excerpt or two, and, for the most part, I wasn't disappointed. Druckerman paints a lively and often amusing portrait of her own struggles raising (mostly) her daughter, Bean, while she (an American) and her husband (British) live in Paris, France. Noticing on a vacation that most French children are far better behaved than her own, and realizing that the good behaviors extend beyond eating habits into manners, sleep schedules, and overall independence, Druckerman begins investigating what the secret might be behind all these pleasant little bebes.
The book is at its strongest when Druckerman stays sharply on point. Most chapters follow a predictable pattern: Introduction of an observation through personal experience (Bean is a picky eater who is a mess in restaurants; French children sit quietly and eat all four courses patiently); investigation into whether this is a broad French experience (oui); interview(s) with experts in the field who reveal the French "secret" solution (French parents don't give children choices of kids' menus or bad behavior at the table); discussion of statistical/further observational proof of the solution at work; additional anecdotes about the usually marginal success of trying to re-teach Bean using this secret. The chapters cover not just picky eating but also manners, sleeping through the night (French babies start this at 3 months), day care, early education, elementary school, maternal care during pregnancy, labor, and post-partum, and the care and feeding of marriages after children. Druckerman ultimately approves of most of the French practices she sees, and the reader, faced with expert testimony and touching stories of quiet, happy children, is left little choice but to agree.
There's a caveat here, or, well, two. Though I ended this book ready to move to France and sign up for my labor-and-delivery-with-wine-service, after a day or so, reason reasserted itself a bit. Most of the secrets Druckerman passes along are actually common sense dressed up in a beret. The more interesting part of the book is, perhaps, its at times less-than-subtle criticism of the difficulties one may have in following common sense advice while trying to raise a kid in Modern America.
The book also loses some of its focus around the time it's obvious its author loses her focus. Spoiler alert, I guess, but about 2/3 of the way through the book, Druckerman gives birth to her twin sons -- and all of the patient, solid, charming French lessons she's had up to this point are thrown out the window as she struggles to cope with having two very small and demanding children all at once. This would probably make an interesting book in-and-of itself, but here, the book feels sidetracked, even hijacked, by a narrative that's not directly relevant to its premise. If anything, the sections about struggling with newborn twins give credibility to the idea that this author was (and perhaps remains) ill-equipped to put the good advice of friends and experts to use, which ultimately undercuts the book's efficacy.
Then again, this isn't really meant to be an advice book (and readers shouldn't approach it as such). It's more a of-the-moment memoir with interesting, and often well-researched, observations thrown in. Read as a light entertainment, it's not so bad -- and it's way more fun than What to Expect....more
If, when you started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you spent the first chapter or so hoping the banking/industrial explanations would end,If, when you started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you spent the first chapter or so hoping the banking/industrial explanations would end, this is probably not going to be an ideal read. If, like me, you've been riveted by the behind-the-scenes drama of the banking crisis for the past 5ish years, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic is the perfect accompaniment to the daily paper: a humanization of society's current villain class without any attempt to apologize or uncomplicate their choices.
The story follows four major point of view characters (though it occasionally dips into others) whose lives intersect in and out of the world of corporate banking: Doug, the daredevil investment banker on the rise; Henry, the nostalgic New York Fed president; Charlotte, a retired history teacher beginning to feel the system she's lectured on is actually evil; and Nate, a teenager growing up in the shadow of a bedroom community's vast wealth.
Doug works for Union Atlantic, a massive (think Citibank) investments-and-everything international firm, where he's paid to take and encourage massive risk; Henry is paid to keep an eye out for systemic risk just like this. The set up would seem to present these two men as having the central conflict, and yet it's Charlotte who represents the true angry party. At the book's start, we notice that her sanity might be questionable; she's begun to hear religious and cultural pronouncements from her beloved dogs, Wilkie and Samuel, that encourage her to believe her new neighbor's megaMcMansion might be a symbol of true evil.
The most memorable scenes in the book are the most outrageous -- a Fourth of July party gone completely, hideously, hilariously wrong is the grandest moment and clearest denunciation of wealth in Haslett's book -- but the best scenes are the most subtle. When Charlotte's otherwise powerful brother must confront her over her declining mental state, his timidity in the face of her righteousness briefly convinces -- or at least confuses -- the reader to reconsider who is sane and reasonable.
In the end, I think that's what Haslett's book wants from its readers. At the end, we wonder less who's right and who's wrong -- the villains here are clear -- but whether the system that creates them is even a fair measuring stick.
I'd give this a personal 5, but I think it might register as a 3 for those who don't like giant blocks of text about derivatives trading. ...more
Maybe it's pointless to jump into reviewing this series midway through, but K is the first book in Grafton's alphabet so far that's seemed much differMaybe it's pointless to jump into reviewing this series midway through, but K is the first book in Grafton's alphabet so far that's seemed much different than the others. I've thoroughly enjoyed the highly devourable mysteries A-I; J is for Judgment left a sour taste in my mouth only insomuch as it trespassed into non-mystery territory at the end, when (spoiler!) protagonist detective Kinsey Millhone discovers, basically out of nowhere, that she has family living not too far away. Her reaction to finding this out is pretty childish and initially in-character, but the open hostility and sustained unreasonableness of the character in the last 40 or 50 pages of the book made me hope for redemption -- or at least further development -- in K.
K seems promising in its plot, at first. A bright but stand-offish young woman, Lorna Kepler, is found dead in her tiny cottage. Ten months later, her distraught mother asks Kinsey to look into her death -- in part because someone has just mailed Mom a videotape in which the bright, favored daughter appears in a porn film.
The book slowly sinks, though, into tropes and bizarre complications. Lorna's lifestyle -- it turns out she worked part-time for the city's water treatment plant and part-time as a high-dollar sex worker -- is criticized soundly by nearly every character in the book, save one, her best friend (and fellow hooker), Danielle. Thus the book quickly divides into two groups: the fat, jealous women who speak about Lorna's life with disgust, and the thin pretty friend who's a hooker. Oh, and the men, all of whom seem to have wanted her. Kinsey's search for a possible killer leads her to San Francisco to check up on the porn film director and fellow actor. (The actor is one of the only friendly characters in the book, in part because he's one of the only surprising characters). There's really no point to this trip beyond, I can only guess, some kind of editorial advice that "maybe throw in some sex" was handed over.
The only fun in the book comes from some banter between Kinsey and a new-to-readers male cop, Cheney Phillips, who spends the first half of the book being strangely seductive and professional. At about the 3/4 mark on the book, he becomes a jerk (and magically gains a girlfriend), in order to slow the progression of the mystery and to force Kinsey into a moral dilemma.
By the end, three more people have died. All three die after Kinsey has received the clue that reveals who Lorna's real killer is; none of the three is confirmed to have been killed by the same person. In fact, the book varies completely from form at the end: not only are crimes left unsolved, but Kinsey doesn't even mention her final accounting with the family of the deceased (one of whom is implicated in an illegal act not long before the resolution). The epilogue deals with the (absent) consequences for the questionable moral decision Kinsey's made. I'd like to hope that might be dealt with in L, but this book leaves me no hope.
Why? Because J's issues didn't make the cut here. Though the family drama is mentioned, it's only mentioned once, in dialogue. Unfortunately, there does seem to be some form of bitter hangover happening for either the character or the author. The childish, bitter, unreasonable Kinsey of the J finale shows up from the beginning of K. Where the descriptions in earlier books have often found clever ways to categorize new acquaintances, this book seems rife with uncreative and insulting descriptions. An initial meeting with the sister of the deceased leads Kinsey to cunningly observe that, "From the size of her butt, she'd eaten many boxed cakes." That's neither creative nor funny. It's just mean. Her observations of nearly every other woman in the book are similarly critical and hateful. The men, on the other hand, come off nicely -- they're mostly broad-shouldered, sturdily dressed, friendly in their smiles, light in their eyes. (One exception: a stereotypical pimp, whose physical dimensions are basically repeated in a stereotypical john later on). Add to this the fact that the author, for some reason, spends time not only reminding the reader of how many calories Kinsey's daily run burns but also finding the only good quality in any of the women seen to be the bare, flat midriffs of Danielle and an actress named Cherie, and you end up with a book that feels like it's simmering with the repressed bitchy hunger of a character (or writer?) who really, really needs a piece of cake and a day out with some decent girlfriends.