Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Road to Character - Review

I read this fantastic article a couple of months ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html?_r=0 . Almost simultaneously, my parents discovered that the author, David Brooks, wrote a full-length version in the form of a book called The Road to Character.  Knowing it would be something I'd be interested in (without knowing I'd read the article), my parents got me a copy of the book.

It pains me to say this but I really preferred the condensed version.  After getting stuck two-thirds through the book I finally skimmed the last chapter last night.  The book started out promising enough but it became monotonous and repetitive.  It was also very dry at certain points.

I appreciated the individual stories of people who followed a higher calling despite obstacles but at some point it stopped being interesting.  There was also a particular passage in the book where the author revealed some serious bias.  It was the chapter about George C. Marshall (of the Marshall Plan).  Brooks was saying something about Marshall having made good and bad decisions and then used Marshall's lack of support in creating the state of Israel as a bad decision.  The author, by the way, is Jewish and his son serves in the Israeli army.

I did dog-ear a few passages that I found helpful and I'll share them here:

Take a bucket, fill it with water,
Put your hand in - clear up to the wrist.
Now pull it out; the hole that remains
Is a measure of how much you'll be missed....

The moral of this quaint example:
To do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself, but remember,
There is no Indispensible Man!  


The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.

The good news is that the book reinforced what I've been thinking for a long time - that our society is way too ME ME ME.  The society of yesteryear was more focused on things outside the self.  There's a balance and I hope we get there one of these days.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister - Review

Vanessa and Her Sister is an historical fiction that my grandmother recommended and subsequently mailed to me to read.  It's about the Bloomsbury Group - a collection of artists, writers, and socialites who gathered in the early 1900s to exchange philosophies, theories, artistic methods, and bodily fluids at times (haha).  More specifically, it focuses on the relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolfe.

I had never heard of Vanessa Bell prior to this book.  I've never read any of Virginia Woolfe's novels but I've heard of her.  I suppose that's one purpose of this book - to shed light on the forgotten or ignored older sister, Vanessa.  Perhaps I'm wrong to refer to her that way. Maybe she was famous in her time (?) but it seems to me that Virginia Woolfe is more prevalent in today's popular culture.

The book is written from Vanessa's perspective through her diary with bits of correspondence thrown in from the other relevant characters.  I enjoyed the novel to a point but I grew very impatient with Vanessa and her handling of personal affairs.  When the novel starts, she's the eldest and most responsible of her sibling set.  It's obvious that she takes on the burden of managing everyone's affairs and more specifically, Virginia's fragile mental condition.  I looked it up and experts suspect she had bipolar disorder.

What I found frustrating is that her commitment to her family often times resulted in a lack of care for herself.  Virginia, separate from her condition, was selfish and possessive.  Instead of pushing back, it seems like Vanessa did her best to placate and work around Virginia's unreasonable whims.  Why?  It got to the point where Virginia wedged herself between Vanessa and her husband, Clive, solely because she was incapable of sharing her sister. Since she couldn't claim her sister as hers anymore, she had to claim her sister's husband. And Vanessa let it happen without a fight.

I guess none of it really mattered since everyone in the Bloomsbury Group seemed to have an open marriage but it was uncomfortable to read about.  Vanessa eventually accepts the status of her "modern" marriage but long after she's been made heartbroken.  She should never allowed herself to be put in that position.  Period.

It was a pleasant enough read but as I mentioned above, I found it difficult to wade through the sisters' relationship without feeling frustrated.  Vanessa was a pushover and Virginia was a brat.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Review

I love The Mindy Project so I was really looking forward to getting inside Mindy Kaling's head.  I expected her memoir (?) to inspire laugh-out-loud laughter.  I can count ONE TIME that I audibly guffawed in the course of reading this book and it wasn't from the reading material, it was inspired by an awkward childhood picture of her.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.  I wonder if it would've been a different experience as an audiobook.  I'm sure it would have been.  I think part of what makes Mindy funny is her voice and inflections, which I know from her TV show.  Still, the book felt like a disjointed mess and frankly, I didn't find a lot of the material funny OR interesting.  Sorry Mindy!  I still love your show.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Book of Night Women - Review

Before I went to Miami earlier this year I bought The Book of Night Women for my kindle.  I got it in preparation for the author's book review with my grandmother's book club. I've yet to read A Brief History of Seven Killings, the book Marlon James was presenting, but I thought I would get a taste for his style with his first book.

It was a bleak read.  You might expect that from a book about slavery in Jamaica in the late 1700s/early 1800s.  Most of the book was written in dialect.  Normally I have a hard time with that but it fit in this story and I was able to understand it.

I wouldn't expect a story of this time period to be devoid of the n-word but it sure was present.  All.the.time.  Much of the language in the book was ugly and hard to get through. By ugly, I don't mean his writing style - I mean the use of the n-word, the base and vulgar references to intercourse (both consensual and forced), and of course, the inhumane treatment of the slaves.

I was reading other reviews of the book and it seems that many found the central "love story" unrealistic and I can't say I disagree.  Perhaps the purpose of their coupling was to illustrate just how much that could never work.  The power dynamics could break down behind closed doors but they could never live equally in public view and even in private there would always be an element of mistrust.

Anyway, I can't say I enjoyed the book because I didn't.  Enjoy is a strong word and it's hard to use it in the context of a book about slavery.  I was invested in the narrative and where it was going but frankly, I'm glad it's over.  I wouldn't read it again and I'm not even sure I'd recommend it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Girl on the Train - Review

The Girl on the Train is my favorite book in a while.  A lot of the participants on a message board I frequent compared The Girl on the Train to Gone Girl but I found it to be infinitely more enjoyable/palatable.  Gone Girl was very suspenseful and one shock followed the other but the characters were so hateful it would be hard to describe the reading experience as a delight.  The Girl on the Train isn't a happy story by any stretch of the imagination but it's a lot easier to stomach and the female protagonist, Rachel, is very sympathetic.

I'd loosely compare The Girl on the Train to Rear Window, the Hitchcock film.  Like Jimmy Stewart's character in Rear Window, Rachel is a voyeur into someone else's life and then becomes intimately involved in their personal drama.  Her involvement is simultaneously cringe-worthy, foolish, ill-advised, dangerous, and healing.  Interestingly, her engagement with the strangers of her Rear Window-like drama (in her case, from the window on her commuter train) helps her to solve a mystery in her own life.

It's hard for me to say much else without spoiling the plot but I loved the mystery, the characters and the way the plot unfolded from different vantage points.  I was on the edge of my seat throughout and didn't solve the mystery until the author started to drop heavy hints about 80% of the way through.  I was absolutely riveted.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Big Little Lies - Review

Big Little Lies is about the lies we tell each other and ourselves and their inevitable consequences.  It is the best book I've read this year (not saying much) AND the best book I've read in quite some time.  It is the complete package.

The story is told in a crafty way.  It begins six months out from an event/murder and it's told via a Greek chorus and the three female protagonists, who switch off chapters.  Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, the female protagonists, are well-developed and interesting as are the sub-characters in their orbit.  I found their bond of friendship refreshing.  Their support and care for one another is genuine.

Big Little Lies touches on some serious topics like physical and sexual abuse and bullying (adult to adult, child to child, and adult to child) but most of the story is told in a humorous tone.  I found the bullying storyline especially interesting because it's the parents who set the example and often, the parents who are the worst offenders.

There's a marvelous mystery and twist at the end that I wasn't expecting and it was thrilling when I uncovered it.  I don't think I could've enjoyed the ride or the characters any more.  I loved the author's style of writing and story-telling so I'm excited to learn that she's written several other books.

Incidentally, the author is Australian and subsequently, the story takes place in the Sydney suburbs.  The great thing is that the story and the relationships could be transported anywhere.  It's a story with universal themes.

I thought this was going to be a fluff read but it had so much depth.  I absolutely recommend it!  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

First Impressions - Review

I read Charlie Lovett's previous book, The Bookman's Tale, and really enjoyed it.  Like that book, my grandmother recommended this follow-up novel, First Impressions.

The format is similar in the sense that every other chapter follows an old timeline and the other chapters follow a modern-day timeline.  Both timelines are related and work together. Unfortunately, I found myself unimpressed by all elements of both timelines.  Jane Austen and her grandfatherly literary muse were dull.  The modern-day protagonist was insipid and her paramours delivered some of the most contrived and cheesy dialogue I've ever read.  I found myself rolling my eyes.  Hard.  It's unfortunate but I just couldn't enjoy myself like I did the last time.  The Bookman's Tale was so much easier to get absorbed in whereas, I found myself running to the finish line in this one.  I wanted to get the reading experience over with as soon as possible.

Still, I wouldn't rule out trying his next effort.  I appreciate his creative prowess and his easily flowing words.