Friday, December 22, 2017

The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen ------------------ 2 Stars

Without a doubt, this is the longest break between blogs since I started over seven years ago. There's a couple of factors. First, the fall tends to be the busiest time at work during the year. Second, I try to read the Atlantic cover to cover and they have two double issues during this time; this kind of kills the available reading time I have. Third, and by far the most important, The Sympathizer was tough to get through.

Now, I'm a bit torn. This book was highly recommended and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. And though it was a slog to finish, when I did, I was really happy I stuck with it and completed. It had some great themes and nuanced points to make about main characters struggles. (Plot side note: the book is about the end of the Vietnam war and subsequent life of the main character (a communist sympathizer) and others living abroad in America).
In fact, the interview with the author, postscript, actually helped clarify much of the novels purpose and shed light onto a number of not yet realized, at least to me, plot developments. One more positive, there was a few funny parts of the book as well.

Though, as much I enjoyed finishing up the novel and understanding more about the author's intent, I couldn't get past the difficulty of actually pushing through the entire novel. The problem -- it simply wasn't interesting. The plot set up was one with a lot of promise, but clearly did not live up to my expectations. While there are some "action" scenes in the novel, they are told so slowly that you can't help but wish the author would speed them up. Interestingly, I didn't even find the details he continually offered helped anything. Rather, I'm not sure what took up so many pages of the novel. Also, what bothered me immensely, the book had no dialogue. Well, it did have people talking on few occasions (thus neglecting one of my favorite parts of a book), but the author refused to use quotation marks. This cool writing style did not go over well with me. So, I was left with a book with a very slow plot, occasional dialogue (always fun to try to remember who was talking), and some less than interesting characters.

So, clearly, I was not a huge fan of this book. I really tried to be, and there must be many others that are (like the people that give the Pulitzer!). I, also, can see why this book did receive so many awards. There is a smartness to Nguyen's writing that few authors have. In the end, however, I base my ratings exclusively on entertainment value, and this one just didn't do it for me.

Friday, September 1, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi ------------------------- 4 Stars

I tend to shy away from "sad" books. There seems to be too much despair in the world, and too many things I've studied in world history, that I always prefer to avoid the subject. When Breath Becomes Air falls into the "sad" group of books, but it is also falls into the another category - "rewarding" books to read.

If you've not heard about this book, you should! It's about an incredibly accomplished and, beginning to be world-renowned, neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer at only 36 years of age (something like a .0002% chance).  Not long after, the author passed away and this is his nearly finished memoir which he began writing after his diagnosis and almost finished before he passed.

To begin, the author is a superb writer and, overall, incredibly smart dude. As he was doing his undergrad, he struggled between learning about one's physical mortality (doctor) and understanding one's morality (philosopher side). Through his life, he was an avid reader and writer, and this shows through during the novel. It's almost hard to believe how accomplished a doctor Kalanithi is while also being such a superb writer.

The story is told in two parts; pre- and post- cancer. Not surprisingly, the second half is much more challenging to get through. As I reflect more upon the novel after finishing, I think I understand more now about why it came across as so tragic. I think part of it is the importance and value a person like Kalanithi has to a society and world. As you learn more about his work, and the accomplishments and ways he has helped others, you realize how much was taken from others. Truly, his death, without doubt, has/is leading to deaths/illnesses of others. This was not a fun take-away. To complicate and make things harder to digest, his wife and family were large parts of the joys of his life. In fact, there is a beautifully written afterword by his wife, that really got the tears flowing!

So, I do recommend the book but you need to know what you are getting into. I'm not a huge fan of crying on my book while reading, but I made an exception for this one! It's a truly tragic story but one that's worth reading to give you a lot more insights about both death and life.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Carousel Court - Joe McGinniss, Jr. --------------------- 4.5 Stars

So, how time flies. 8 years ago, I read and reviewed Joe McGinniss Jr's first novel The Delivery Man. I knew him briefly from playing some basketball while living in D.C.  Anyway, the book was pretty awesome and well worth reading if you have not picked it up. However, I would recommend you read his newest book first.

Carousel Court came out earlier this year and is a fantastic read. Similar in many ways to his first novel, it's gritty, drug induced fun for the whole family. And this one really is about a whole family. Newly married couple moves to California with a young child and quickly goes under water on their new home. As they struggle to figure out what to do, their marriage begins to unravel and both find their own outlets to maintain whatever sanity they have left.

As I rate books on entertainment value, this one is a knock out. Gripping and hard to put down, I flew threw it in about a week. It was a kind of a mix of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train but seemingly more realistic. The author does a fantastic job describing the history of the two main characters in engaging ways while still keeping the pace of the novel moving forward. Also, he has a great knack for quickly moving from a description about a scene, that includes intimate details to help visualize, to out of control drug use and violence.

The book also hits closer to home than the last. Not that my marriage is falling apart and am behind on mortgage payments, but I can relate to the loss of one's 20s and the "grind" of work and kids on a daily basis. Again, the author does a good job of framing, albeit probably an outlier of a situation, what many in some parts of country are struggling with too often.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was an engaging and entertaining read, and it's wonderful to see the author continue to hone his already impressive skill set further.  Like this last book, it would get an "R" rating, but the story is a good one and characters quite interesting. I only wished he would write books more often than every 8 years (though, if there always this good, I can wait!).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami ----------------------- 3.5 Stars

Haruka Murakami is one of the most accomplished and well known contemporary science fiction writers.  I've had1Q84 on my list to read for a few years now and was going to tackle but persuaded myself to check out Norwegian Wood instead. Why? Two reasons. First, 1Q84 is like 1,000 pages and I wasn't up to take that on after just finishing one of a similar length and I didn't know if I really wanted to go "all in" on one of his science fiction books. Sure, I could have read one of his shorter books that were more typical of Murakami's style but instead choose the very "straightforward" Norwegian Wood. Did I regret it? A little.

This book is a very slowly told love story about a college age student who has fallen in love with two women. The book is also incredibly depressing, has a dreary outlook on the world, an over abundance of focus on sex, lots of elements of suicide and a confusing ending. Sooooo, I had a real mixed experience with it.

On a positive, this book actually made me think far more about it after I finished it then during. The book is a bit of a slog to read, with nothing extremely exciting for long periods. However, the book is beautifully written and has a great deal of nuance and subtlety. Unfortunately, sometimes the book was so subtle and points made so hard to decipher, that it simply felt boring. Nonetheless, upon concluding and thinking/looking back at what transpired. I was more intrigued than when I was reading. What to make of that? Certainly, it's a good sign the novel was so thought provoking and ending open to interpretation that I continued to mull over various parts but what does it say about the entertainment value of reading it that I continually felt it wasn't moving anywhere?  I know one might argue that the novel was supposed to mirror real life, and is most likely Murakami's most "traditional" novel, but when the reader continues feels frustration from the lack of plot movement does that matter?  Will I continue asking more questions of myself in this blog?

Well, I'm not sure what to think about Murakami at this point. This book made him a star in Japan and at least three of his books are incredibly well acclaimed, but I really didn't love this one.  It was fine but I really couldn't get into the "love" story aspect of it and the dreariness of the tone. However, I definitely want to take one of his more traditional science fiction novels to try to get the full Murakami experience. In the meanwhile, do feel free to check this one but be forewarned about some of the concerns noted above.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Shantaram -- Gregory David Roberts ------------------------ 4.5 Stars

One of the great parts about summer, is that I finally have some real time to put toward reading. I purchased Shantaram over a year ago, and it's been sitting on my Kindle as I wanted to make sure I had a good chunk of time to invest into this page 944 page behemoth. Well, I finally had that time and enjoyed it immensely.

While not as well known as other longer books I've read, this book did not disappoint (though, all other books I've read at this length did earn 5 stars). If you are not familiar, briefly, it's a story about an escaped convict from Australia who winds up in India and gets connected with unsavory characters while also falling in love in different ways. More than anything, this was a book about Bombay, India, a city and country that I was mostly unfamiliar with.

At 944 pages, it really is a saga. Many, many things transpire and the book had a strong plot that kept me interested and wanting to pick it up often. It's a tough couple hundred pages to get through at the start as the author is setting up the varying storylines, but once it gets going, it's a fascinating story.  It also had a lot of great dialogue between interesting characters; which I enjoyed immensely.

The book also was a love story. Not just between Lin, the main character, and a girl, of course, but other people/things as well.  He was in love with India, with the slums, with a godfather type figure, with friends, etc. Further, the book was a look at what love does to people and how it motivates self-interest. The book was also about crime and violence, which, of course, is fascinating. Besides being a criminal to begin with, Lin gets back to his old habits in parts of the novel. War was also given it's fair due with a trip to Afghanistan during it's war with Russia (timing is 1980's for the novel).

So, why not 5 stars? Well, as much as I loved the novel, I did feel like the author would it pour it on a bit heavy sometimes with some of his writing. To say some of the prose is flowery and exaggerated is a large understatement. While most of it comes off as fitting and just part of the book's style, there are some parts that are just cheesy. Also, like I mentioned, it was tough to get into.  Any book earning 5 stars should not take 200 pages to get you connected and fully engaged.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book to most people. If you have any interest at all in learning more about the sights and sounds of India, I would highly recommend. Even not, it's a great read and great story!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Daily Show (the Book) an oral History -- Chris Smith -------------------- 3.5 Stars

Like many college educated liberals in their mid-30s, I was a HUGE fan of Jon Stewart's Daily Show. I remember falling in love with it during George W.'s presidency and enjoying it further during Barack's eight years (sad to say I didn't even give Trevor Noah a chance when Stewart quit two years ago (though John Oliver's show in HBO is fantastic!)). So, it seemed like a no brainer to check out a very complete and comprehensive history of the show.

What was cool about The Daily Show (the book) an Oral History as it's simply interview after interview, spliced together, from everyone who was a big part of this show. Of course, Jon Stewart is a big part, so are the producers, writers, directors and correspondents on the show (John Oliver, Stephen Colbert/Carrell, Jessica Williams, Lewis Black, etc.). The book is a fun and easy read. While Chris Smith, includes some small notes throughout, he does an incredible job of taking these individual interviews with each person and include small chunks, sometimes only sentences or paragraphs, one after another to tell the history of the show. And it really is comprehensive; he starts from the days when Stewart took over for Craig Kilborne all the way through Trevor Noah taking the reins.

For the most part, the book is what you might imagine. Them going through the history of the show and the various individuals interviewed providing their memories of various events and shows throughout the years. For the most part, its an enjoyable read. I forgot about many of their shows and the comedians interviewed are just as funny when talking about the show as they were on the show. I even pulled up YouTube to check out some clips I had forgotten about over the year (like his "fights" with Bill O'Reilly or Jim Cramer).

What I liked most about the book were two things. First, the nostalgia I felt about those past years and the joy I had watching the show. I loved how Stewart always was willing to comment and make a point about things in society and the world that he thought needed to be questioned or discussed. The show was great at making people laugh but always having a point in doing so. Second, and more surprisingly, I learned a lot about Stewart and what kind of person he is. Besides brilliant and funny, he proved to be incredibly caring, for those that worked for him, and for those that need to be supported.  He also always striving for excellence. This meant working hard, very hard in pursuit of trying to master something that he considered to be most important: Truth. I admire Stewart even more after the book and I would bet you would as well if you check out this interesting book.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Neuromancer - William Gibson --------------- 2 Stars

So, I realized that my dad recommended Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End to me almost seven years ago. Besides being an incredible book, it was one of only a few ever to receive 5 stars on this blog.  If you have not read, I would check out as soon as possible. As I was talking to him recently about how much I enjoyed, he said I had to check out Neuromancer, another class science fiction novel. Unfortunately, I didn't find nearly as much enjoyment with this suggestion.

So, this book is, like, for real, science fiction. I say that only as a descriptor to understand that, compared to Childhood's End (CE), this stuff is much more "out there."  I think I liked CE so much because it seemed in the realm of possibility. This book, not so much. It was written about 30 years ago and took a view of the future that is very different than we are currently experiencing. (Though, the positive reviews of this book, and there are MANY, (this is regarded as one of the best science fiction books of all time) explain how, actually, much of what we have experienced in the past 20 years of new technology was described in this book. Some argue, in fact, that the Internet was something that was written about in this book (which seems accurate)).

The books plot is not straightforward at all. But, I think, it's about a data thief guy, who has some health issues, who gets hired by a powerful guy to break into some data software. There's much more than that, but it's got a Matrix type feel; again, this was 30 years ago when written. The plot is actually pretty interesting but I got so bogged down in trying to understand what was happening I really couldn't appreciate. The characters are very well described and you understand, for the most part, the motivations of the individuals in the book, but keeping up with details of the plot was a challenge.

I guess why I disliked this book so much was sort of alluded to in the last paragraph; I really couldn't understand it.  Perhaps worst, I couldn't picture it. What's so nice about most books of fiction is the visual you have in your head of the characters and events taking place and watching them take place through your own versions in your brain. With the complexity of what Gibson is describing, that was impossible for me for much of the book. And without the pictures, it's really hard to follow what's going on.

I was trying to think about how to be describe how I felt reading it, and I think the best way I can equate is to try to imagine someone describing art to you in words but not being able to see it. They would be saying things like, "Picture a blank canvas and lots of colors on it in different ways, and there is shading, and different hues, and things like that." Now, this may be easy for us to picture since we've seen it, but if you've never seen a piece of art before, it would be very challenging. That's what reading Neuromancer was for me. Gibson really is an artist and his canvas are the words he is writing from his imagination of the future. While reading it, you could feel that he was on another plane from others, which, I believe, is why this book is so beloved, but if you aren't the type of person who can visualize the art he is describing, it's a a frustrating experience.

With all that being said, I do recommend others read the book. While I did not feel entertained, was lost for much, and did not really look forward to reading each night (hence, 2 star rating), I am happy I read it and appreciate the importance of Gibson's work.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Walter and Me - Eddie Payton -------------------- 2.5 Stars

This won't be one of the longer reviews for a couple reasons. First, this book is mostly going to interest Bears fans. Second, it's a biography and not a ton to say about it.

Walter and Me is a biography/autobiography written by Walter Payton's brother Eddie Payton. If you don't know who Walter Payton is, you should.  He may be the greatest running back of all time (football, folks!). He was also my favorite player for most of my youth. This was due to two reasons. First, he was on the Bears famous '85 championship team which won the Superbowl when I was 5. The team was awesome and included Walter, the Fridge, Jim McMahon, and a few other interesting characters. Second, I loved the video game Tecmo Bowl on the original Nintendo. This was mostly due to the Bears being the best team and Payton the best player on the game.

As for the book, it's okay. While I got a few new insights into Walter, most of the book was really his brother's viewpoint on their lives. While I appreciated the early chapters learning about their lives growing up in poor, rural Mississippi, the subsequent chapters about his life were less interesting. Getting glimpses into his personal life (e.g. he is a huge practical joker, he is very introverted) was interesting, but it seemed like Eddie was more interested correcting misinterpretations about Walter than anything else.

As you may or may not know, Walter was only 45 years old when he died in 1999. He had a tremendous life and great career. One of my favorite memories was when my dad returned from a trip and gave me an autograph from Walter. He happened to see him on a plane and Walter, like many described, was very giving of his time, chatting with my dad until they were ready to take off. He truly was a great individual and amazing football player and if you revere him as much as I do, this book is for you. If not, you may want to skip this read though you should take a minute to check out the incomparable Superbowl Shuffle (Walter is #34!). 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis -- J.D. Vance -------------------------- 3 Stars

I didn't hear much about Hillbilly Elegy until someone mentioned it recently and I checked it out online. Well, apparently I was really missing out as it was a NY Times bestseller and has very solid reviews. But, did it earn a 5 star rating based on the Bookmark that Book criteria?  Read on to find out; or just see above in the title :)

The basic premise, as you may gather from the title, is an autobiographical story about the author's life (and family).  He tells a narrative about growing up in Appalachia and rural Ohio and then going to the Army and working through Yale Law School. The story, however, focuses mostly about his life growing up as, he calls it, a "hillbilly". The story is a decent read but I did not feel that engaged and excited to pick it up day after day. I actually thought the story got more interesting as he got older and "made it out" but I found it a slog to get through the first half.

As I was pondering why it was that I did enjoy or get excited about this book as much as others, I think I began to really get a better sense of why this book is so fascinating to people. Mostly, I believe it stems from a deep fascination about our culture and the differences between different groups of people. Be it, economic, geographic, ethic, racial, whatever, our country seems to be become more heterogeneous and "sorted" than ever before (side note, The Big Sort is a great book explaining how/why this is happening).  I think that this book does a fantastic job of painting a picture about a group of people that many in America do not understand or look down upon. Certainly, after Donald Trump's surprise victory, a book of this type has to be checked out to help provide greater insight for those that can not or do not understand how he won. As a person living in a liberal bubble outside Washington D.C., I loved how this book made me better understand and empathize with a group of people who live no more than a few hundred miles from where I do and how different their lives are then mine.

However, that empathy can only go so far. Part of my frustration with the book, was certainly the subject matter. Specifically, all the challenges that go with those that Vance describes as "hillbilly". Many of them are well intentioned and kind, while many others are not. Many are not well educated and many have very un-informed opinions about many things. Some discriminate, some are racist, some are addicts and some are alcoholics. Again, many are not. I think Vance and I both struggle with the most is the mindset of many. Unlike many of his family and friends, the author did not expect a handout nor feel that it was anyone's job but his own to make something of himself. His focus on hard work and effort led him to where he is. In fact, the chances of him making it to Yale law school were almost non-existent based on his circumstances. However, the reason he has accomplished so much is a lesson for many in similar situations.

Overall, this book is great read in the macro sense. The themes are interesting, the social commentary valuable, and the overall message incredibly important. Just don't plan to be blown away by some of the very ordinary stories he tells or his writing style.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Underground Airlines -- Ben Winters ---------------------- 4 Stars

Underground Airlines is one of the more interesting plot set-ups I've read in a while. It probably falls under the genre of "revisionist" or "alternate" history but reads more like a sci-fi novel in certain parts. The basic premise: after the Civil War the South is allowed to keep four permanent slave states which exist into modern day, the time period from which the novel is told. So, was this new spin on history any good? Well, for the most part the strongest part was the set-up; the follow through could have been improved.

I really enjoyed reading this novel though the first half seemed more interesting and exciting than the second, which is odd. I loved learning more about how the current USA was allowed to have four states that legally could allow slavery. In many ways it's a dystopian novel. What's fascinating about it is all the aspects of slavery that exist in modern times with all the modern technology. To say it's a bit scary to think about, is an understatement.

The biggest area this novel struggled is actually pulling all of the plot pieces together. The story is based on a black man who is now an escaped slave catcher in the norther states; apparently a real problem in the dystopian setting of the novel. While the first half is very strong in setting up the conflict and rounding out most characters, I found the author failed to follow through at the same level of intrigue as the novel continued. While he tried to add more action, I felt like much of it fell flat compared to some of the set-up of the first half. Odd, I know, but true.

Overall, I would recommend this novel. It's a pretty fascinating idea and certainly keeps your attention throughout. While there is some lag in the second half as the author seems to be out of his comfort zone pushing an action novel, there is certainly enough there to make you keep up and you do feel a certain level of interest in learning the fates of the key characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Undoing Project - Michael Lewis ------------------ 4 Stars

I really struggled trying to figure out how many starts to give Michael Lewis' new book The Undoing Project. When I heard it was coming out a few months ago, I got very excited, which probably raised my expectations much too high. I finished it about a week ago and had it at lower than a 4 but in the past week, I've thought more about it, and it's moved back up. Let's get into why.

A little bit of background to help explain: this book is about two incredibly influential, but fairly unknown psychologists named Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. A few years ago, I started reading a number of books about behavioral economics (Predictably Irrational, Nudge, and others). Basically, these two guys help create and make famous this new way of looking at decision making. If you are not a familiar with it, definitely check out this book. Basically, behavioral economics takes on normal economics, which assumes that each person acts logically, and puts a human overlay on it, which, study after study shows, people are not at all logical with money or decision making. In fact, they are often illogical. So, I've been really interested in this for the last few years and read Kahneman's comprehensive book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a few years ago. Frankly, that book is fantastic and probably should have earned higher than 4 starts. When I heard that Michael Lewis, an author I usually enjoy reading (save the atrocious, Home Game) was writing about these two titans, I was very excited. 

Now to the problem, it's not actually the most exciting book. I'm not sure if my expectations were just too high, I knew too much already so most of this was not new, or if it's simply not a great book, but I really did not enjoy as much as I would have thought. I had two major problems. First, I was hoping to get more about the relationship between the two. Basically, it was one of the greatest partnerships in history, to the point neither actually could tell where the ideas were coming from at their peak. And while Lewis does a noble job at trying to detail their relationship, I never really felt it the way I was hoping.  He describes it in so many different ways but it still fell flat in truly adding clarity to the emotional part. Second, while he cherry picked some of the most interesting and noteworthy projects/studies they did, I had heard many of them before. The experiments are very interesting, but I thought he also did a poor job explaining just how far-reaching their research had become in the modern era.

So why did it end up with 4 stars? Because I have to think about the average reader who has never heard about Kahneman or Tversky, which is most of you! As this will be your first foray into behavioral economics, it could be a lot worst. In fact, the one added benefit of this book is that you get biographies (which truly is interesting) of these two fascinating scientists. However, if you want to get into a more meaty and thorough read and understanding of behavioral economics, then cut out the middle man and go straight to Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow!  Either way, pick one of them up so you can at least understand all the poor decision making you currently are doing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Old School -- Tobias Wolff ----------------------------- 3 Stars

I can't really recall how this book came across my path or why exactly I felt the need to read it. Like most people, I have a limited amount of time to read so I try to only take on books that are I really think I will learn from or enjoy. So, it is with some frustration that I spent the last few weeks finishing Tobias Wolff's Old School.

I must have thought I would enjoy the book based on a few things. First, it has the word "school" in the title so that must have captured my interest. Second, the cover picture brings up (accurate) images of a story about some sort of New England type boarding school from decades ago. Third, Tobias Wolff is a fairly impressive writer with some other pretty good novels.

Was the book enjoyable? Well, yes and no. On the positive, the book is amazingly well written. Wolff truly has a way with words and there are many sentences and paragraphs that I read more than once due to both the complexity and beauty of the words. The story is interesting but not great. I think the author is far more interested in the words and the connections he is trying to make in his analogies in the book than the actual plot moving forward. To say it's a character piece, is an understatement.

One of the odd parts of the book that bothered me is that the author never used quotation marks. While the dialogue is minimized for the most part, it did bother me the few times when individuals were talking. I also really enjoy dialogue as a part of the book so this was an annoyance for me.

On a positive, I did enjoy the "academic" nature of the book. To clarify, the book is about a bunch of adolescent boys at a prestigious boarding school, specifically focusing on the boys that are great writers. In the time of the novel, the school has visits from Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. Hearing the author reflect his views of these writers through the characters in the story is very enjoyable to read as well.

Overall, the book is very well written and enjoyable foray into words. Wolff has a real talent with the pen and that is the most enjoyable part of the book. As far as looking for a book with a great plot and wonderful dialogue, I would look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a fun period piece about school, great writing, and honor, this is the book for you!