Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Nonfiction Post

Sometimes only nonfiction will do.  Lately I've discovered (the hard way) that if I'm reading at bedtime I will never fall asleep at a decent hour if I read a good fiction book.  There's just too much temptation to see what will happen next; even if I exercise self-control and put aside the book to turn out the light, my mind races as I speculate as to the ending.

Hence my solution:  at bedtime, only read nonfiction.  True, sometimes a nonfiction book acts as a soporific (better than Ambien!) and I drop off with the light on and the book still in my hands.  However, even if it is an interesting book, and I have found many, it's not quite as hard to lay aside when you really must be disciplined and fall asleep.

I'm going to run through a few genres of nonfiction, and save others for another post.  Because this is my blog (ha ha), my selections will obviously favor my interests.  Don't let this deter you -- sometimes, reading a book that you wouldn't have chosen yourself can open up a whole new world of interests.

I love history.  I would have majored in it, but it's slightly less practical than my actual major (psychology).  I especially love European history -- there's so much of it, a lot is really loopy (think the defenestration of Prague), and the characters are so fantastic they could not have been created by any average author's pen.
Some favorites of mine include In Europe, a sort of historical travelogue of the 20th century by Geert Mak.  I own it (okay, I lifted it from my father's library) and it lives permanently in my bedroom.  Lovely to dip into.
Another favorite is Empires of the Sea:  The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, by Roger Crowley.  This book describes the series of events during the mid-16th century in which the balance of power in the Mediterranean dramatically shifts.  I know, this sounds boring to some of you, but it's written really well, and if you follow current world events it's quite relevant.
I don't as a rule really seek out Holocaust books, but these are exceptional and really too good to miss.  The Third Reich Trilogy, written by Richard J. Evans between 2003-2008, begins with The Coming of the Third Reich, continues in The Third Reich in Power, and concludes with The Third Reich at War.  The books chart the rise and fall of Hitler's regime, and it's a comprehensive work, stunningly researched, which touches on every aspect of life in the Third Reich as it grows, and then implodes.  This takes forever to read, but it is well worth it.

Science and Health:
I'm a little obsessive about The Omnivore's Dilemma; it's probably not well-balanced of me.  This book is by Michael Pollan, who has achieved a certain measure of fame writing about food and how it gets to the table.  (He actually wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine in which he purchases a steer and follows it to the dinner table).  Pollan can make anything sound interesting, even corn propagation, but this book can definitely hold its own.  He asks, what should we have for dinner? and follows up his question by following the industrial food chain, the organic food chain, and the food we can forage ourselves.  My first reaction to this book was to react hysterically to displays in the supermarket (it's a conspiracy!) and try to buy organic and local, but it didn't last.  In part this didn't work because I live in Connecticut, and if I'm going to buy local produce I'll be eating old potatoes all winter.  In part I calmed down a bit, but I do regress every time I reread the book.  I don't mean to scare you off Pollan's ideas -- I think they have a large degree of merit and a lot can be learned from this book.  Just don't go overboard and start keeping chickens in the backyard (with organic feed).
In Lost in Wonder, Colleen Brooks gives a layperson's tour of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last few centuries.  I don't have much of a science background (I stopped after fulfilling my college requirement, which was not much more sophisticated than what I had done in high school) but I do enjoy it to the extent that my mind can grasp.  This book is so accessible to anyone who has an interest and does not have background or skill, it's a pleasure to read.  It's also written smoothly and with a minimum of jargon.
This weekend I read Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus, about the autism/vaccination controversy and its effects on the general population.  It was reviewed recently on Slate (how I found out about it) and here's the review:  It was a very good read, and I recommend it to everyone.  Again, you don't need to have any special knowledge to read this.
Other nonfiction genres will have to wait for another post.  Please post your comments and suggestions!

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Yesterday I finally got hold of a copy of Hush, which I've been hearing about lately in a very quiet way.  By Eishes Chayil (obviously a pseudonym -- it means "woman of valor" in Hebrew), it is a disturbing story written in a very personal way.  The narrator, Gittel, tells the story of her friend Devory through flashbacks and letters, and the tale is not a pleasant one. Among other things, it includes a tragic suicide.  Strictly speaking, it's a Young Adult novel, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as one.

This is the first piece of fiction written by an observant Jew that I have ever read which deals with molestation, abuse, and its cover-up in Hasidic society.  I have no way of ascertaining the validity of this account; the author evidently did not feel it was safe to give any clues to her identity or even the sect of Hasidim to which she belongs.  I do wonder how much of this is her personal experience; the reader does come away with the sense that the author has taken some risk in writing this.  I did not, however, have difficulty believing that such things happen, but perhaps I'm naive in thinking that most people do not behave quite as much like ostriches as she describes.  If you've read it, please post here -- I want to hear what you thought about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

To Be Filed Under "Whatever"

As you can see, I'm not really sure how to classify this series of books.  By Jasper Fforde, the Thursday Next series features Thursday, the eponymous heroine, as a Jurisfiction agent.  She does live in the real world, but can also pass into the BookWorld.  By the way, the real world in this series is a parallel universe to begin with.  The parallel England in which the stories take place is one in which literature is highly valued; Shakespeare plays (especially Richard III) are considered the epitome of popular entertainment.  People so often wish to change their names to famous authors that they require a number after each name to differentiate. 

These books are really bizarre.  Sorry, I can't think of any other word that defines this genre.  Part mystery fiction, part fantasy, part horror (if your idea of horror includes fictional characters erasing other fictional characters from other books), the line between reality and literature here is very thin to begin with, and gets thinner.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday pursues a master criminal through the pages of -- what else? -- Jane Eyre.  One of the results of this is Thursday's inadvertent adjustment of the plot line.  This, the first Thursday novel, is just the beginning of a romp through a BookWorld peopled with literary characters, and peppered with literary allusions.  Those of you who feel lovely and superior when you pick up on one of those will love these books.  The Eyre Affair is followed by Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, and the most recent one, One of Our Thursdays is Missing.  I will admit being a little disappointed with the last one, as the real Thursday does not appear at all and the book is narrated by the character who plays the fictional Thursday in the books written about her.  I know, this makes very little sense.

Fforde is also the author of a spinoff series starring Jack Spratt as an investigator in the same world.  This series is called, unsurprisingly, the Nursery Rhyme Series, and it begins with The Big Over Easy.  The second one, The Fourth Bear, is actually better than the first, and I believe a third is in the works.

Just as an aside, if you love a book full of literary allusions, you shouldn't miss the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.  Her primary character, Lord Peter Wimsey, never misses a chance to show how well-read he is, and her mysteries are both immaculately crafted and beautifully written.  I believe she is a classical scholar as well; she translated Dante.  This explains a lot.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chick Lit!

When you see these on the library shelf or the bookstore display, they're easy to pick out:  the covers are usually in varied candy-colored shades, a caricatured mom is prominently featured (usually with great hair), and the titles are catchy, if not terse.  This is the whole new genre of chick lit, literature for tired women who want to escape to the world of someone who has it harder than they do, even though the fictional woman is guaranteed a happy ending.

I Don't Know How She Does It epitomizes chick lit to me, if only because it was the first book of this kind that I ever read.  By Allison Pearson, it was ragingly popular when it came out, and is soon to be adapted as a movie (of course).  It's the story of Kate Reddy, an English career woman who -- literally -- juggles a superheated job, a husband, and two children.  Oh, and a very spoiled nanny, an overindulged cleaning woman, and the need to pretend she can handle preparing homemade baked goods for school events.  Although it's exaggerated to a great extent, it's amusing in the way that only a realistic story can be -- If you have a family as well as a life, you'll see that there's a bit of Kate Reddy in all of us.  As the book draws to a close, Kate has to make tough choices about the way she lives her life.  I didn't really expect it to end the way it did, but I enjoyed this book tremendously.

Lauren Weisberger, best known for her book (and movie adaptation) The Devil Wears Prada, has recently come out with another book which I liked much better.  Last Night At Chateau Marmont is a book that, sadly, seems practically written with the movie version in mind, but is a great story to read on the beach, in the tub, or on the plane.  It follows a period in the life of a couple, Brooke and Julian Alter, when Julian's slowly simmering music career suddenly comes to a boil.  Predictably, their relationship has a very hard time dealing with the series of catapulting changes his fame brings to both of them.  I liked this book -- you don't have to think too hard; it's a great book to read when you're really zonked but you want some undemanding entertainment.

For those of you who like Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding, I have to tell you that she previously wrote a much better book, which didn't seem to ride the wave of Bridget Jones fame.  Cause Celeb is the story of Rosie Richardson, who goes to Africa to do something meaningful, as well as escape her life as a hanger-on of famous people.  In the fictitious country of Nambula, she finds her work with refugees rewarding until a locust plague strikes and promised aid does not arrive.  Tapping into her connections, Rosie rallies all the celebrities she knows to raise funds for the refugees.  Of course, there's a love triangle involved.  I will say no more.

A new book (I just read it last week) Emily and Einstein, features a husband who dies suddenly and comes back in the guise of a dog adopted by his wife.  Linda Francis Lee writes this story which so easily could have degenerated into a weird version of Ghost, but does not, thankfully.  It's meant to be a tale of atonement and redemption (for the lousy no-good husband turned dog) but also manages to be amusing and touching at the same time. 

The Secret Lives of Dresses (also new) is for you clothes-minded ladies -- if you just love it when books go into great detail on what everyone is wearing, this one's definitely for you.  Erin McKean tells this story of a woman returning to her hometown when her grandmother has a serious stroke in order to take over the running of Mimi's, her gran's boutique.  Yes, there's a guy involved.  Actually, more than one.  Oh, and there's someone plotting in the background.

A column on chick lit cannot fail to tip its metaphorical hat to the mother of it all -- Jane Austen.  Yes, I know all you classic-phobes are rolling your eyes now, but it's true!  The language may be (a lot) more polished, but all the other ingredients are the same -- unrequited love, boredom, adultery, cads, and silly women who are into clothing.  If you've never tried it, I dare you.  At least watch the movies!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

From the Bestseller List

I haven't had a lot of success finding good reads from the bestseller lists; I don't think those books necessarily sell well to intelligent readers.  However, I do occasionally find the rare gem in the list that I can't put down.  Here are a few of them.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog spent most of last year on the New York Times Bestseller list; it's a French novel published in an English translation by Europa, a publisher which specializes in this type of book.  The author, Muriel Barbery, is also a professor of philosophy, which explains a lot about the issues addressed in her story. 
This book shines a spotlight on an exclusive luxury apartment building in Paris; the two narrators are its most unusual residents.  Renee, the building's concierge, opens the book with her observations of the people she assumes she exists to serve.  However, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that Renee is not what she seems to the world.  Intermittently, the book shifts to the narration of Paloma, a young child who is also hiding something about herself, and the stage is set for the two of them to meet.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a wonderfully good translation (and, believe me, I've seen bad ones) and the writing just shines; however, Barbery does wax quite philosophical through Renee and Paloma, and not every reader can deal with that.  Another oddity is the strange enthusiasm her characters have for grammar, which isn't odd at all if you consider that they are, after all, French.  I found this book mesmerizing; I couldn't put it down, and I eventually bought it and read it many, many times. 
Another good popular book is the current New York Times Bestseller Room, by Emma Donoghue.  On the face of it, this seems to be just another version of the story in which young woman is abducted, kept captive for a number of years by psychopath, has child(ren) by said psychopath, eventually escapes, has to adjust to real world.  If that was the case, I wouldn't be directing you to this book. 
Room is unusual because of its unusual, innocent eye, point of view.  The story is narrated by Jack, the child who grows up knowing nothing but Room, the corrugated shed in the backyard of the man who abducted his mother when she was in college.  His only window on the world, other than the skylight (covered with wire mesh), is the television -- he believes it depicts outer space.  Jack, in other words, believes Room is the real world because he knows of no other. 
It's not a spoiler to tell you that they escape (I won't tell you how); the story becomes even more intense once Jack now has to face, literally, a whole new world.  We see through Jack's adjustment the difficulty his mother is having, and glimpse through his eyes the way his mother's loved ones are knocked sideways by the unexpected reunion.  I'll admit it -- I cried as I finished this book.  And then I read it again.

Stay tuned; later in the week I'll be posting some chick lit!

Friday, March 11, 2011

For When You Need a Good Laugh

Another series I've been recommending to friends lately is the Spellman series, by Lisa Lutz.  These are mysteries, and the series begins with The Spellman Files, introducing the reader to Isabel Spellman, the messed-up private investigator daughter of two private investigators.  It continues with Curse of the Spellmans, Revenge of the Spellmans, and The Spellmans Strike Again.  Its delightful wackiness left me in stitches, even after rereading each book several times.
You really do need to read these in order, even though Isabel, the narrator, thoughtfully inserts asterisked notes referring to the previous books.  A collection of characters as odd as they are interesting include an octogenarian Jewish lawyer who loves pastrami sandwiches, a disreputable uncle, and a straitlaced older brother who Isabel both detests and depends on.  Practically every character in this book is blessed (or cursed) with incurable nosiness; this extends to placing a closed-circuit camera over the pistachio bowl to figure out who is putting their shells back in.  And it gets worse, much worse.
The mysteries themselves are not complicated as much as they are byzantine in a bizarre sort of way; don't read these because you want a mental puzzle to solve.  You'll end up with a headache after navigating the intellectual roller-coaster ride on which Lutz takes her readers.  Red herrings are so abundant that you need crackers to go with the story.
These are really, really fun books -- read them when you are tired, depressed, sad, waiting in a waiting room, or on the train.  But don't blame me if, while reading them in public, people look at you strangely because you are chuckling to yourself.  Here's a link to Lutz's page:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Welcome to My New Blog

I've been thinking about starting a blog now for months, figuring it would be a lot easier than emailing those of you who are always asking for a good book to read.  Hence this new blog!  No doubt other blogs like this exist, but this is mine, and if you are reading it, you know me (or of me) and you know a little bit about where my recommendations are coming from. 
This blog is intended as a place for you to find book recommendations, as well as a venue to recommend to others books that you have read and loved.  Please comment on my posts or email me with your good reads!
As this is my very first post, I will begin with a book that is not new but is a very old favorite of my own.  Strictly speaking, it's a pair of books that should be read one after the other:  The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk.  Some of you will have read (or were compelled to read) The Caine Mutiny or Marjorie Morningstar by the same author; the writing style is more or less the same but the story he tells in the War series is far more historical and epic.
The Winds of War introduces the reader to Victor Henry, a naval officer, during the 1930's and the slow build-up to World War II.  As the books go through the story of the Henry family, in a sort of soap-opera-ish way, Wouk intersperses the plot with chapters (fictionally written by General Armin von Roon, a supporting character) of straight history, written from the German's point of view.  The history segments are very accurate; Wouk appears to have done an incredible amount of research in order to write this book.  These sections serve the purpose of setting a historical backdrop to the story itself.
The actual plot, the Henry family and their various experiences throughout the World War II period, is fairly riveting -- most of the characters are well-drawn and complex enough that the reader is left thinking of them as real people.  This book has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, and I re-read it periodically.  Every time I read it I find something new in it, or something new in my reaction to it.  Parts of it are extremely moving, and it's clear that Wouk meant this as an evocative work.  Read it and let me know what you think!