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detailmuse ... reading in 2010

Club Read 2010

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Edited: Dec 27, 2010, 3:08pm Top

Note: Part 2 continues here.

I read mainstream and literary fiction, memoir and science-related nonfiction. I’m especially drawn to coming-of-age stories; debut novels; stories set in workplaces; and following my curiosity, especially into books with original premises or styles. Having focused on science rather than arts from high school on, I’m beginning to fill in some of the history and literature I’ve missed.

A list of finished books (with ratings and links to reviews) follows below. See the books in library format here. Likely upcoming reads are here.
“#” denotes a book on my TBR shelves as of 12/31/09.

For more about my recent reading, see my 888 (2008) and 999 (2009) challenge threads.

59. Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman (4) (See review)
51. The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (4.5) (See review)
48. This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia (2.5) (See review)
45. The House on Mango Street# by Sandra Cisneros (3.5) (See review)
43. The Lion by Nelson DeMille (3.5) (See review)
42. Countdown by Deborah Wiles (4) (See review)
41. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (4) (See review)
38. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (4) (See review)
37. Light Boxes by Shane Jones (3.5) (See review)
35. Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn (3) (See review)
33. Day for Night by Frederick Reiken (4.5) (See review)
32. Gents by Warwick Collins (3)
31. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (4.5) (See review)
30. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (3) (See review)
29. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (3) (See review)
28. We the Children by Andrew Clements (3) (See review)
25. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (4)
24. Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott (3) (See review)
22. The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (4.5) (See review)
21. The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford (3) (See review)
20. The Heights# by Peter Hedges (3) (See review)
17. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (4) (See review)
13. The Incident Report by Martha Baillie (4) (See review)
11. Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (3.5) (See review)
9. The Wife's Tale# by Lori Lansens (3.5) (See review)
6. A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End by Avi (2.5)
3. The Pursuit of Other Interests# by Jim Kokoris (3.5) (See review)

60. The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand / Jacob Kenedy (4.5) (See review)
58. Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy (3.5) (See review)
57. Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point by Alex MacLean (4)
56. Change by Design# by Tim Brown (2.5) (See review)
55. The Playbook by Alex MacLean (4)
54. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (4.5) (See review)
53. Extraordinary Clouds by Richard Hamblyn (4) (See review)
52. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (4.5) (See review)
50. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown (3.5) (See review)
49. Kick-Ass Creativity by Mary Beth Maziarz (3.5) (See review)
47. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut (4.5) (See review)
46. Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us by David Freedman (3) (See review)
44. Cutting Rhythms# by Karen Pearlman (4.5) (See review)
40. Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern (4.5) (See review)
39. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman (4.5)
36. Jenniemae and James by Brooke Newman (3) (See review)
34. Aspergirls by Rudy Simone (4) (See review)
27. The Language God Talks# by Herman Wouk (3.5) (See review)
19. The Art of Choosing# by Sheena Iyengar (4) (See review)
18. Blankets by Craig Thompson (4)
15. Words Fail Me by Teresa Monachino (3)
14. It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs (2.5) (See review)
12. Obsolete by Anna Jane Grossman (3.5) (See review)
10. Making Rounds With Oscar by David Dosa (3) (See review)
8. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte (5) (See review)
7. The Paris Review Interviews I# (5) (See comments)
5. The Elements by Theodore Gray (5) (See review)
4. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog# by Chad Orzel (3.5) (See review)
2. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (4)
1. The Happiness Project# by Gretchen Rubin (3.5) (See review)

26. Forbes City Guide Chicago 2010 (reference) (4) (See review)
23. Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts (reference) (4) (See review)
16. Refusing Heaven (poems) by Jack Gilbert (3)

Edited: Sep 12, 2010, 2:27pm Top


Jan 1, 2010, 8:33pm Top

Thanks for starring me; I starred you, too, and look forward to your comments!

Jan 2, 2010, 4:26pm Top

Hi detailmuse.
I am looking forward to following your reads again this year. Hope you have a great reading year.

Jan 5, 2010, 9:37am Top

*waves hello* Happy to have you here!

Edited: Jan 9, 2010, 11:25am Top

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (4/5 stars)

I’ve only ever been much interested in one comic strip (Calvin and Hobbes *sigh*) and had no interest in graphic novels -- until I stumbled upon the fabulous Stitches (a graphic memoir) in an independent bookstore last year. So I paid attention when LTers (thanks bell7!) responded that I might also like the Maus series. And they were right.

In this WWII-Poland of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, Jews are represented as mice (thus the phonetic “Maus”), Poles as pigs, Nazis as cats. Spiegelman shows his father’s early adulthood and marriage to his mother, and then the pogrom against Jews -- including the kindnesses and betrayals that delay but eventually send his family to the gate of Auschwitz, where this volume ends. And I was interested to find another, overlaid, story -- a father/son memoir of Spiegelman with the post-war, aging Vladek.

Whereas Stitches is overwhelmingly graphic, with very few words, Maus is much more like a comic strip -- dense with words, the illustrations mostly supplemental. The style makes it a quick read, but both its loveliness and horror made me parse it a little, and I want to look forward to the second volume (Maus II) for awhile rather than jump right in. It’s also prompted me to add Persepolis to my wishlist.

Jan 9, 2010, 10:28am Top

Maus sounds like an interesting story and premise that I think want to add to my ever growing wishlist. Which leads me to my overly stupid question, Where do find graphic novels in a bookstore? All the bookstores near me have giant anime(?) sections, written in mostly Japanese. I never seem to be able to locate the graphic novels that I might find appealing.

Edited: Jan 9, 2010, 2:19pm Top

My son read and laughed over Calvin and Hobbes everyday for years! I put in my years' worth as well. Maus, though, is a whole 'nother kind of comic book. Stitches too. As a reader, I'm such a snob about the superiority of the written word to evoke unforgettable images, thoughts and feelings, especially about serious subjects. But then I look at the pictures in those books and think, "Can it really be said any better?" Just amazing!

Jan 9, 2010, 11:29am Top

>stretch, I found Stitches on a "new books" table but went right to a bookseller when I looked for Maus. Persepolis was next to it; I don't know if the section was otherwise filled with anime/etc. Maybe ask for "graphic novels not anime," or Maus specifically (it's well known).

>bonnie, I agree about the snobbery, I think mine was that reading words is "harder" than looking at pictures :) But Stitches gave such a full "experience"! Maus seemed more mental.

Jan 9, 2010, 4:34pm Top

>6 detailmuse: So glad to see you liked Maus! (I think considering the subject matter perhaps "enjoy" would be the wrong word for me to use) I can see why you would want to take some time between volumes 1 and 2. I read them both in one afternoon and had to just sit after awhile and take it all in, not able to start another book for a few hours while I continued to digest it all.

Edited: Jan 11, 2010, 1:03pm Top

The Pursuit of Other Interests by Jim Kokoris (my latest Early Reviewer snag) opens as 50-year-old Charlie Baker, head of a big Chicago ad agency, seems to be “losing it” -- and before long, we see that “it” isn’t merely his psychological stability but also his mega-salary job and possibly the wife and teenage son he’s ignored for years in favor of work.

Lest this sound like deep drama, it’s not; it’s instead a terrific “comfort read” -- a fun romp through the world of outplacement and a touching exploration of the opportunity that a mid-life/mid-career crisis provides to choose again (the same or differently) about one’s work, family, and life priorities. I so enjoyed Kokoris’s characters that I’ve already looked up his backlist and am eager for future releases.

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 12:13pm Top

(My first read of this year; I've only now figured out what to say about it.)

“I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change. (…) I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier.”
The result is Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, perfectly categorized in what even she laments is the new genre of “stunt nonfiction” (“spending a year doing something”).

Structured through four or five projects or resolutions (not goals -- “you hit a goal, you keep a resolution”) each month over the course of a calendar year, Rubin begins in January by improving her energy (in anticipation of the year to come), and then addresses aspects of her marriage, family, friends, work, play, finances, spirituality, health and home. Over time, she realizes that greater boosts in happiness come when she removes negatives rather than when she adds positives.

I read the entire book before I posted this review, and found it interesting and inspiring. But it’s too much -- overwhelming to read much less accomplish, and less a memoir than a fast-paced self-help report where I could almost hear Rubin check-marking each accomplishment. Readers can enter the book at any time, not just January, and I think a parsed read would be more meaningful than all at once, and would better lead readers to take up Rubin’s open invitation and resources to join in with their own happiness projects, individualized to their own needs.

eta: fix dead image link

Jan 20, 2010, 5:10pm Top


If dog treats appeared out of empty space in the middle of a kitchen, a human would freak out, but a dog would take it in stride (... dogs) always expect treats to appear at any moment, for no obvious reason. (...) If you can look at the world the way a dog does, as an endless source of surprise and wonder, then quantum mechanics will seem a lot more approachable.
Chad Orzel enlists his German shepherd, Emmy, to provide that perspective in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Each chapter opens with Emmy voicing some problem (usually related to improving her chances of nabbing a squirrel or bunnie or treat) that gives Chad a jumping-off point into physics concepts like particle-wave duality, uncertainty, measurement, teleportation. It’s a cute device but it’s also effective -- alternating between theory and man-dog conversation both lightens the content and applies it to the everyday.

I endured a year of classical physics in college but came to this book after having developed an adulthood interest in quantum physics. I came away much more aware of the concepts involved, but only slightly more in command of them. (Maybe that’s the way with physics, little by little?) But to be clear: this is a physics book and Orzel writes for a pop-sci physics audience: “Most people wouldn’t know a wavefunction if they tripped over one, but almost everyone has heard of the uncertainty principle…” If that’s not you, or if you’re not interested in photons, probability, and polarization, this is not the book for you. If that is you, enjoy! -- Orzel’s approach is positive and curious, and Emmy is just plain fun.

Jan 20, 2010, 5:56pm Top

Sounds good! I love it when another LT-er leads me to a book that I would never find otherwise. Thanks!

Edited: Jan 25, 2010, 11:47am Top

From Theodore Gray:
“I started collecting elements in 2002 (...and) by 2009, I had assembled nearly 2,300 objects representing every element, the possession of which is not forbidden by the laws of physics or the laws of man. (...) Some elements can be experienced in large quantities, like the 135-pound iron ball I keep in my office for people to trip over. Others are best enjoyed in responsible moderation -- keep too much uranium in the office, and people start asking questions (keep over 15 pounds, and the Feds start asking questions).”
The Elements is a lush and visually stunning coffee-table book that showcases those samples and provides a terrific individual “biography” of each element.

Gray opens with an overview of the Periodic Table and its organization of elements into groups according to their similar characteristics. But then he explores them, element by element, in order of their atomic number rather than by group -- an effective method because the repeated returns to the various groups reinforce those group characteristics while familiarizing readers (YA and adult) with the individual elements.

Each biography is a two-page spread -- the left a full-page photo of one of those samples from Gray’s collection, and the right an array of text and pleasing images that detail the element’s history, uses, and technical specs (atomic weight; density; crystal structure; orbital electron arrangement; melting and boiling points; emission spectrum). Though it's a reference work, I read this book straight through -- often thinking, “okay, just one more” but then unable to resist that each element’s text ends with a teaser for the next one, and that Gray is liberal with trivia, personal experience, and wit. He dubs Tellurium the most melodic name and discusses the politics involved in naming new elements, finishing: “And so it is that we come to the end of our journey through the periodic table not with a bang, but with a committee.”

He’s the Bill Bryson of the Periodic Table. Highly recommended.

Jan 25, 2010, 12:32pm Top

Have you seen the website?: http://www.periodictable.com/ Actually, I didn't realize the book and website were linked until I just now checked. Nice review, sounds fun.

Jan 25, 2010, 2:04pm Top

Detailmuse, what an interesting book! Definitely putting this on my daughter's birthday list.

Jan 25, 2010, 7:55pm Top

Lucky daughter!

Great website, how is it possible that that domain name was still available?! I'd order one of his posters if I didn't already have the "Periodic Table of the Desserts" in my kitchen; how nerdy is it that I wish he offered note cards...

Jan 25, 2010, 9:45pm Top

I almost bought some place mats, but on the last page of the payment they add a $7.95 shipping charge... for $20 worth of place mats. I balked... :\

Jan 26, 2010, 12:48pm Top

Your science-related books have the honor of being the first on my LJ wish list. The physics book sounds yummy. Or is 'yummy' not a scientific description?

Jan 27, 2010, 1:54pm Top


I think you and Emmy (the physics dog) will get along famously

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 12:15pm Top

I became interested in A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End by Avi when it was mentioned several times during a series of lectures about writing the opening lines of novels and short stories. The mention was in passing, and in fun, but it caught me with its malaprop-ish truth of how muddled the middles of stories can be. So when it came to mind for auntmarge64’s niece on LT, I figured it was time to read it myself.

It’s a children’s book, with occasional illustrations, about a snail and ant who want to write a story. They conceive the opening line (the opening word, actually) and what to write about, and navigate punctuation, spelling, tension/conflict, symbolism, writer’s block and much more -- all in a playful and truly muddled manner that’s likely to appeal to kids ... except it's via wordplay that seems way above kid-level.

It reminded me very much of Alice in Wonderland and I recommend it to readers who enjoyed that. But for me (as was my experience with Alice), a very little here went a very long way; the unending silliness annoyed me to distraction.

eta: fix dead image link

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 12:18pm Top

According to Edward Tufte, the purpose of graphics is, “Not the complication of the simple; rather (…) the revelation of the complex.” And his The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, first self-published nearly 30 years ago, is now a bible -- a sort of The Elements of Style applied to information graphics.

Tufte reviews how information can be presented (i.e. a minimal amount via a sentence; a moderate amount via a table; a huge amount via a graphic) and then turns his attention to graphics -- from their beginnings in cartography to how to achieve graphic excellence today. He urges a multi-disciplinary approach, cautioning that, “Allowing artist-illustrators to control the design and content of statistical graphics is almost like allowing typographers to control the content, style, and editing of prose.” He touches on psychology and cognition. He rails against using graphic design to deceive, and enlightens readers by pulling numerous examples of misrepresentation from prominent media. He devotes a large part of the book to improving the effectiveness of graphs by urging the elimination of “chart junk” (e.g. moiré-effect cross-hatching) and numerous other sources of “non-data ink.” In fact, a chapter wherein he strips away seemingly necessary text, frames, hatch marks, etc. (leaving little more than an ether vapor but in the process simplifying and clarifying the meaning) is revelatory.

Tufte is mentioned in so many books I’ve read recently, and I’m glad to have finally read him directly. I’m eager to get to his follow-up, Envisioning Information.

1 -- the graphs reminded me why I enjoy the fun little blog, Indexed
2 -- the book shamed me for my comments above (that graphic novels are easier reading) :) Indeed I was exhausted (in a good way) by Tufte’s highly illustrated book -- the need to interpret so many graphics and to move constantly between text and graphics

eta: fix dead image link

Jan 30, 2010, 2:10am Top

You've had a great start for this year. The physics for dogs, Elements & The visual display are all books that tempt me to stop traveling for a while. And they also reminded me of The Periodic Table, which I think sounds interesting and is on my tbr ... but you seem to have it already ... is it good?

And now that you've found graphic novels ... Guy Delisle has been recommended to me, and I'll read them as a part of my round-the-world, and Corto Maltese is something I always come back to.

Jan 30, 2010, 10:14am Top

>23 detailmuse: - Indexed! I also read that blog religiously, and will help promote it: http://thisisindexed.com/. She makes various charts and graphs on index cards to illuminate life's truisms.

Edited: Jan 30, 2010, 1:19pm Top

23 - Thanks for that review. One of my large projects for the year is to re-work my portfolio, including massaging some of my projects. I think this would help a great deal.

ETA: And I also loved Indexed!

Jan 31, 2010, 7:07am Top

23. The Tufte really is a lovely book; I particularly remember the detail and depth of information in the Napoleonic Marches graph.

As you like indexed, hope you've also found xkcd- mostly maths/ science jokes.

Edited: Jan 31, 2010, 12:03pm Top

>24 eairo:: from the opening of The Periodic Table:
There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean “the New,” “the Hidden,” “the Inactive,” and “the Alien.” They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, that they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries. (…) The little that I know about my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases.
Wow, yes?!

I only read one chapter and then ran into a string of arcs and library books. Can’t wait to get back to it.

yay for Indexed-ers and xkcd-ers! And thanks for the graphic-novel recommendations.

>27 C4RO: the detail and depth of information in the Napoleonic Marches graph
agree -- a whole narrative in one visual!

Jan 31, 2010, 12:15pm Top

I am determined to read The Periodic Table this year, I look forward to reading your impressions.

Jan 31, 2010, 12:35pm Top

Upon bell7’s recommendation, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Review Interviews I (there are four volumes) -- a collection of conversations with writers initially published between 1956 and 2006 in The Paris Review literary journal.

My stand-out favorite is with editor Robert Gottlieb, in which writers (Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton among others) comment on working with Gottlieb and he responds -- it’s illuminating and hilarious! But all of the interviews are terrific, and I found myself marking passages throughout.

I pulled one takeaway quote from each of the renowned novelists, poets and screenwriters but, in the interest of fair-use, think I’ll just link to them on my blog rather than post them again here. I also made notes about what to read by writers new-to-me, and I think the first will be some poetry by Jack Gilbert.

Jan 31, 2010, 6:22pm Top

I do love those Paris Review Interviews, especially the older ones. Some of the writers took years to answer the questions posed to them, because they wanted to get the answers just right - as if they were working on a story or novel. Fascinating stuff. It's great to see it being recommended and read.

Feb 3, 2010, 1:35pm Top

>8 bonniebooks: Calvin and Hobbes!

The strip ended 15 (!) years ago. Watterson lives near Cleveland and The Plain Dealer recently published an article and an interview.

About a commemorative stamp due this summer:

Interviewer: How soon after the U.S. Postal Service issues the Calvin stamp will you send a letter with one on the envelope?

Watterson: Immediately. I'm going to get in my horse and buggy and snail-mail a check for my newspaper subscription.

Feb 3, 2010, 4:10pm Top

>32 detailmuse:: The strip ended 15 (!) years ago.

One of the saddest moments in publishing for me. That was my favorite comic strip ever.

Feb 3, 2010, 4:14pm Top

>33 TadAD: Mine, too. I pull out my Calvin and Hobbes books every now and then and reread portions of them.

Edited: Feb 4, 2010, 11:25am Top

I loved geriatrician David Dosa’s 2007 essay about a cat in the New England Journal of Medicine -- Oscar the cat, who by then had seemingly predicted, within hours, the impending deaths of dozens of residents on the dementia unit of a Rhode Island nursing home. He's since been dubbed the “grim reap-purr” and I was thrilled to get an arc of Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat and, from that title, eager to read what promised to be an expansion of the essay. So first, to be clear: this book is not much about the cat.

In fact, there might be a mere cumulative total of 20 pages about Oscar. Rather, the book is one part memoir of the doctor and his geriatric practice; one part profile of the dementia unit’s charge nurse; and eight parts profiles of the residents and their families, with a dollop about the end-of-life comfort provided to them by Oscar. Nor does Dosa explore (beyond a few sentences) the source of Oscar's instinct -- the theories and research about the physiology of dying and animals’ amazing sense abilities.

That said, I’m going to take a sharp turn and say that I liked the book it actually is, and that it’s an important book for the elderly and (especially) their caregivers to read. Dosa is frank about the fear, denial, frustration and guilt inherent in caregiving generally, and specifically in losing a loved one in “the long goodbye” of dementia. He touches on the inadequacies of doctors and the healthcare system and the importance of realistic end-of-life directives. And there are takeaways: that diversion is more effective than trying to reign someone in from their altered reality; that it’s important to interact according to who the person is now (in dementia) rather than who they were; and that it’s most important to simply “be there” rather than necessarily interacting at all. Recommended.

Edited: Feb 4, 2010, 4:37pm Top

Thanks for this review. My mother is well into that 'long goodbye', and I miss her greatly, even as I visit. Dosa's advice is good - no one can enlighten a person whose mind has become fixed on fantasy, and even if you get through once or twice, the fantasy built of a broken mind is stronger than reality. It's best to take people as they are, enjoy what they still have, and let them see you care about them enough to be there.

Feb 5, 2010, 2:40pm Top

I miss her greatly, even as I visit
such truth, even beauty, in that contradiction
I'm sorry about your mother; your perspective is inspiring.

Feb 8, 2010, 11:00am Top

>26 janemarieprice: jane
You might be interested -- I just noticed that this month's Early Reviewers includes The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics, apparently by a student of Tufte and presented in a how-to/workshop style.

Feb 9, 2010, 9:33pm Top

38 - Thanks! I requested it. Now I just need to start working on all these various projects. :)

Feb 11, 2010, 9:50am Top

I remember Iyanla Vanzant’s 1990s book, In the Meantime -- her premise that people have a vision of the life they want, but many drift along while waiting for it to come to them. She suggested that a better way -- in the meantime -- is to cultivate a spirit that recognizes the small, good pieces of life as they occur, and reaches out to attract more.

In The Wife's Tale, 43-year-old, 302-pound Mary Gooch had drifted into inertia many years -- indeed, decades -- before her husband Jimmy (“Gooch”) disappears from their small town of Leaford, Ontario, on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary. She’s so inert that she’s not particularly surprised or worried by his absence, and is confident that it’s temporary. Still, as time passes, she gradually awakens to the isolation of her life even beyond her marriage and, taking inspiration from Gooch (“There’s a whole wide world outside of Leaford”) and from her recently deceased father (“Get a drink from the hose and push on”), she travels to Gooch’s mother’s home near Los Angeles -- to be nearby in case he shows up there. And, in this meantime, she recognizes her life begin to bloom.

Lansens relates the psychology and physicality of morbid obesity through a woman who I understood and was interested in and, as Mary opens up, connected with. The Wife's Tale is a pleasant read with a less-is-more aspect that, for me, resonated more after finishing.

Feb 11, 2010, 9:55am Top

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

When a woman and her husband are found dead in an apparent murder-suicide, a quartet of narrators -- the couple's 15-year-old daughter; the small-town pastor; a writer whose own parents died similarly; and a state's attorney -- give voice to the lead-up and aftermath and then the death investigation. Each character is intriguingly developed through their own words and the words of the other narrators; each voice is sufficiently distinct and, together, they remind me a bit of Anita Shreve's Testimony.

This is the first novel I've read by Bohjalian and I enjoyed his style -- the multiple points of view; the insertion of a mere word or sentence that enlightens and rewrites what came before; and the leaping flash-forwards followed by the bit-by-bit of getting there. I'm eager to pursue his backlist.

Feb 11, 2010, 10:11am Top

A light read during last Sunday’s Super Bowl, Obsolete by Anna Jane Grossman presents ~130 products, practices, and concepts that have become obsolete or are rapidly heading that way.

First conceived as an article in the Washington Post Magazine, the book is organized encyclopedia-style with almost two-thirds of the entries mere sentences or short paragraphs that vary in interest/entertainment from little to none. But the book’s strength is in the other third -- entries that are explored over several pages with humor and reasonable depth (considering this is a light book). My favorites include cursive handwriting (which seems like an aspect of personality!); doing nothing at work (which reminds me of doing nothing generally, and the research that correlates the demise of boredom with the demise of creativity); landline telephones (including operators, party lines, rotary dials, phone books and phone booths; the shift in power from the caller to the callee); and privacy (fame is now a universal ambition).

The content is decidedly boomer-oriented and apt for reminiscing; readers unfamiliar with the concepts will not grasp much about them here. But there are also wake-up calls, for example that texting is making email and audio phones obsolete outside the workplace. And there are cautionary notes about collective knowledge and history: “Most of us probably imagine knowledge to be cumulative: Each advance is built on prior discoveries, block piled upon block in an ever-growing edifice. We don’t think of the blocks underneath as crumbling away or, worse yet, simply vanishing.”

Feb 11, 2010, 1:34pm Top

“Most of us probably imagine knowledge to be cumulative: Each advance is built on prior discoveries, block piled upon block in an ever-growing edifice. We don’t think of the blocks underneath as crumbling away or, worse yet, simply vanishing.” -- That's a really good point, MJ! I didn't realize as a young adult that progress (e.g., women's rights) can go forward, then backward, then forward again because history is not just forgotten--it's not even known.

Feb 16, 2010, 10:50am Top

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

Many incidents occur in public libraries, and when one does the librarian in charge is required to fill out the necessary forms...

In a Toronto public library, 35-year-old clerk Miriam Gordon extends this documentary practice beyond events that occur in the course of her work to events in her life generally. Through a series of 144 spare vignettes -- some a mere fragment, some a couple of pages, many almost poetic -- she documents her interactions with patrons and co-workers, her lunch hours on a bench in a nearby park, a new romance. Some serve as springboards to poignant memories from her childhood; some coalesce to develop a mysterious and compelling thread referencing Rigoletto and Satie. Together, the patrons -- eclectic, demented, dangerous -- highlight how open and exposed a public library is. The ending is resonant yet ambiguous, and when I returned to reread earlier passages even previous clarity took on ambiguity!

It took my library system weeks to obtain a copy of this novel, eventually through WorldCat. I have it for six weeks and plan to read it through again before returning. Baillie weaves some background for readers naive about Rigoletto and Satie, but I think I will explore them a bit before the re-read.

Feb 16, 2010, 12:12pm Top

Where have I been? I've not heard of either of your last two books and they both sound so interesting. There's a librarian at my local library who, from the description in your review, i imagine to be a "Miriam Gordon." Dare I add these books to an already overloaded TBR? Oh, probably so!

Feb 17, 2010, 3:43pm Top

>45 theaelizabet: lol at your "Miriam Gordon"

Add them! (maybe from a library) Obsolete is skim-able quick, Incident is engaging; nice "intermission" reads between tomes from the TBRs.

Feb 22, 2010, 4:48pm Top

Refusing Heaven, poems by Jack Gilbert

I was drawn by The Paris Review portrait of reclusive Jack Gilbert as a man who lives “utterly without regard for the conventions of literary fortune and fame” and who, five years ago at age 80, was frail but had “startlingly bright” eyes. Of his four volumes of poetry, I was drawn to this, his latest, and its stated theme of choosing life (ie “refusing heaven”), even amid deep grief. What’s not to love about hope? :)

I don’t feel even ten-percent qualified to comment on poetry, so I’ll just say there were several whole poems and a number of lines that captured me; but fewer than I’d expected. In the end, I’m left with a distinct craving for nature, even nature writing, perhaps something by Bernd Heinrich. And I’m left with a feeling of having been primed with a fresh coat, a surface now awaiting more poetry … which actually fits Gilbert’s hope that his poems “give people a sense of possibilities.”

Edited: Feb 23, 2010, 12:56pm Top

Two years ago, I liked Not Quite What I Was Planning, SMITH Magazine’s initial compilation of six-word memoirs. Original, clever, insightful ... plus, it was like a box of creative-writing matchsticks. So I was interested in the Early Reviewer offering of the fourth collection in the series, It All Changed in an Instant.

I was disappointed. There are “goods” and a few “greats” among the thousand entries, but they overall seem small, common, narcissistic. They feel boxed-in rather than opening into possibility and insight. Probably, it’s just not an original device anymore for this reader; possibly, there’s too much reality TV already in the collective conscious. The addition of illustrations lent a definite PostSecret feel. And the appendix featuring backstories (on only some of the contributors) felt commercial, as though they had been negotiated in exchange for the entry.

Edited: Feb 23, 2010, 1:01pm Top

Words Fail Me by Teresa Monachino is like a tiny sample of a Richard Lederer book on wordplay excerpted into a separate, slim volume ... and then creatively laid out.

There are sections on word contradictions (oversee means to supervise; overlook means to neglect); antigrams (astronomers :: no more stars); heteronyms (cleverly differentiated through typographic design); redundant expressions (assemble together); and more, including risky hyphenations pulled from media, for example:

Working with you regularly, either in an
individual session or within a group, the-
rapists are available either in hospitals or
offices, providing treatment for people of
all ages whose functioning is impaired.

I concur with RidgewayGirl (on whose thread I discovered it): clever but so slight; read a library copy.

btw on the topic of micro-reads (nano reads?), I thoroughly enjoyed ABC3D last year -- cohesive and complete, delightful to reread … or to re-view via this one-minute video of the complete book (audio alert).

Feb 26, 2010, 3:02pm Top

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is Paolo Giordano’s debut novel -- a bestseller and winner of Italy’s 2008 Premio Strega. Now age 27, he’s the youngest recipient of the award and is pursuing a PhD in physics. This edition was translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

It opens in the childhoods of an Italian girl and boy, Alice and Mattia, where separate traumatic incidents alter their lives. Isolation is a factor in the incidents, and is such a continuing fact in their lives that Mattia likens himself to a prime number and, after he and Alice meet in adolescence, refers to them together as twin primes -- “pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.” The spare narration beautifully evokes their introversion (even autism), and as they grow into adulthood and careers of photography and mathematics the throughline remains: is solitude their destiny?

Though the setting is modern-day Italy, I was disappointed that there is virtually no sense of place -- country or culture*. Otherwise, it’s an insightful and lovely (though melancholy) novel with an ending I found wholly satisfying.

* Many stories are independent of setting (even when they take place somewhere specific) and this one could have been set most anywhere. Still, I was surprised to not feel myself in Italy. In fact, I was firmly in the USA in a couple of passages, including a literal line of dialogue, “Alice doesn’t live here anymore.” (My copy was an arc; maybe that will be revised before final copy.) But -- I’m naïve on the topic of translations -- might this reflect on the translator? Do some translations intend to “scrub out” foreign-ness to make a work more familiar/palatable in the new country?

Mar 1, 2010, 12:15pm Top

Blankets by Craig Thompson was a community read at my local library. Though the timing then didn’t fit for me, I took enough of a look to notice it was a highly visual (vs textual) graphic memoir, along the line of the terrific Stitches. (A line that best describes what I most enjoy about highly graphic, graphic novels is from a recent non-graphic read, The Incident Report: “There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.” That’s what I feel happening while viewing some of the images.)

It’s the story of Thompson’s childhood and adolescence in small-town Wisconsin with a younger brother, a harsh father and a fundamentalist-Christian mother. A bullied loner, Thompson meets popular and lovely Raina while at church camp, and a later visit is arranged with her family in the comparatively huge city of Marquette, Michigan. He’s shocked by most everything he experiences during the visit, including that Raina’s charmed persona belies a home life where she shoulders tremendous responsibility amid divorcing parents and disabled siblings. Most of the middle of the book is a powerful exploration of first love -- the effortless conversation that continues deep into the night; the sexual awakening -- and his passion, art. He comes home a changed person.

In one sense the story feels small -- the point of view is definitely YA (at oldest maybe early 20s), very in-the-adolescent-moment, without much wisdom and perspective. (I wonder if it was an adult read at the library as a reminder to parents about what their own teens are experiencing?) But in another sense the story is huge (growing up, falling in love, questioning religion, finding a whole huge world outside your family) -- a nearly universal story and thus resonant. I raised my rating from 3.5 stars to 4 just over the course of writing these notes, and I think a group read is good -- the book develops further upon reflection/discussion.

Mar 4, 2010, 4:45pm Top

"We each develop a personal equation to account for the trajectory of life: x amount of choice, y of chance, z of destiny. (…) I believe that choice -- though it can be finicky, unwieldy, and demanding -- is ultimately the most powerful determinant of where we go and how we get there."

The Art of Choosing is Sheena Iyengar’s interesting exploration of those finicky, unwieldy, and demanding aspects of choice. There’s research (expanded upon in extensive sections of endnotes and bibliography), but the “art” of the title refers to how history, culture, philosophy, psychology, and economics affect our big and small choices. For example: Are you part of an I (individualist) or We (collectivist) society? Do your politics tend toward capitalist (freedom from restriction of initiative) or socialist (freedom to enjoy equal opportunity)? Is your perception of having a choice more psychologically satisfying than your actually making the choice? Can you resist both conformity and uniqueness to choose according to your authentic self? What happens when marketers introduce faux choice through product extension or governments add sin taxes?

With blurbs by Gladwell and Gawande, I was primed to enjoy this book, and I did. It’s interesting and readable, although little seems new. And though there are seven chapters, I found it difficult to define a cohesive topic for many, or an arc that develops and concludes over the chapter; I felt more adrift at sea (albeit pleasantly) than in a stream’s current. Still, I’m glad for several takeaways -- especially a reminder about how quickly we weary when choosing and Iyengar’s counter-intuitive suggestion to make the easy choices first (e.g. with a product, what features we most want) so as to winnow out, early on, later irrelevant options.

Edited: Mar 10, 2010, 11:47am Top

The Heights by Peter Hedges opens as Brooklyn Heights (New York) stay-at-home-mom Kate Welch snags a high-paying job awarding grants from the philanthropic arm of an evil corporation; her husband Tim takes leave as high-school history teacher to be home with their boys and finish the doctoral dissertation he’s been writing for six years; and uber-rich and -beautiful Anna Brody moves into the neighborhood.

It's a rollicking domestic satire that reminds me of Tom Perrotta (though not dark). The characters (especially a couple minor ones) inject surprises and funny segues, and the narrative is presented humorously: plenty of subtext, short chapters in alternating points of view, and rapid scene cuts. In light of Hedges’ filmography, I wasn’t surprised to find myself casting roles and viewing it as a movie while I read.

Still, the storyline is (almost) as predictable as the set-up. I was willing in the beginning to go along with the premise, but when the plot stayed unoriginal, the characters grew less likable and their actions implausible, I noticed how very much I was having to suspend disbelief to remain engaged. A light, escapist read for either gender.

Edited: Mar 10, 2010, 12:03pm Top

A couple for Read-a-Novella Month:

Three reasons to read The Young Visiters (sic) by Daisy Ashford, written in 1890 and published in 1919 (and discovered through Murr over on the Children-as-Narrators thread):

1) For its storylines of romance and social advancement -- the foreword proclaims it “a Victorian novel in miniature.”

2) For its nine-year-old author, though to be clear this isn't a story about children, nor necessarily even one for child readers. Ashford's spelling is often phonetic (she especially loves sumshious) and the subtext is funny, even racy; yet she senses the needs of readers and is versant on the concerns of adults (including men).

3) For its literary dustup, where (especially in the USA) J.M. Barrie’s preface (not included in my edition) prompted questions about whether Ashford or Barrie really wrote the book. (This 1920 NY Times article (pdf) concludes for the child, as generally does history.)


The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (translated from the French by Jordan Stump; discovered on charbutton’s thread) is set on the outskirts of modern-day Paris in a small cafe owned by a husband and wife. When the husband disappears, the wife and tiny staff try to forge on: Amedee the Senegalese cook, Madeleine the new waitress, and Pierre (the reflective narrator), a bartender who’s nearing retirement after a complicated life.

I love work-based stories and this one is lovely, melancholy and full, very much like Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. The little book itself is also lovely to look at. It’s Fabre’s only story available in English; I hope more will be translated.

Mar 10, 2010, 12:15pm Top

You leave me looking for a copy of The Waitress was New and thinking about The Heights, which would not normally catch my eye but you brought up Tom Perrotta.

Mar 15, 2010, 3:15am Top

Adding Blankets and The Art of Choosing--thanks!

Edited: Mar 31, 2010, 8:54pm Top

A few notes to wrap up my March reading:


Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott
A recovering-alcoholic mother worries 24/7 about her teenage daughter’s lies and irresponsible behaviors, in their California community seemingly rife with rehabbing and dying youth. (3.5 stars; see review)

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
On an ocean liner in the mid-20th century, a chess champion meets his match in a man who learned the game through extraordinary circumstances. (4 stars; see comments)

The Language God Talks by Herman Wouk
From the epigraph: “It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe (…) can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil -- which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.” --Richard Feynman

94-year-old (!) Herman Wouk explores that cosmological stage through science and scientists (including Feynman), and that human drama through stories, including from his life. (3.5 stars; see review)

eta: links

Apr 12, 2010, 12:50pm Top

We the Children by Andrew Clements is the first installment of a new six-book series for middle-grade readers.

It's a quick, exciting, clue-driven mystery about saving an historic school that's headed for redevelopment as a nautical theme park. Subplots involve friendships, school rivalries, separated parents, and life in a seaside community (including sailing and living on a boat). Very promising. But this installment is very short, little more than some opening material for the series … and with Book 2 not due out until Fall 2010 (and the rest unannounced), it's waaay too long to wait -- and to read -- what appeals most as a very fast story.

Apr 12, 2010, 1:12pm Top

I've added The Language God Talks to my wishlist. It sounds like it could be fascinating.

How Infinite Jest coming along?

Apr 12, 2010, 2:23pm Top

>59 dchaikin: "It's not you, it's me."
That's what I keep apologizing to my copy of IJ.

I've been traveling...
I am such a slacker in the group read :((

But I'm still all-in; completely interested; on-board (pretty much) with enjoying the journey (every page) and not the goal (finishing). Heehee, thanks for the query, I think it poked me back into the book!

Apr 12, 2010, 2:27pm Top

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Who knew?! -- that for decades during the early and mid-20th century, the home economics programs at prestigious American universities taught domestic arts through fully equipped “practice houses” ... including child-care using orphaned infants known as “practice babies.” That historical fact sets up Lisa Grunwald’s fiction about what happens when one such child is raised “not with a pack of orphans by a single matron but as a single orphan by a pack of mothers.”

In 1946, four-month-old Henry arrives at the practice house of Pennsylvania’s Wilton College and the eager ministrations of a rotating series of student “mothers.” But later, instead of returning Henry to the orphanage to be placed elsewhere through permanent adoption, program director Martha Gaines (hardened by a bad marriage and a miscarriage) arranges to raise him herself. The novel follows Henry through his childhood and adolescence, his relationships with girls and women, and his early jobs (including terrific passages as an animator on Disney’s Mary Poppins and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine).

A romp through mid-20th century popular culture, the novel is promising in the beginning and somewhat satisfying in the end, easy to read but oddly unengaging. I think my biggest disappointment is that it is less an exploration of its wholly original premise, and more a general story of adoption.

Edited: Apr 12, 2010, 2:35pm Top

#60 Glad I could nudge you in a good way. I'm trying to think that way too - the journey, not the goal, which is OK until other books I want to read start accumulating...

Apr 13, 2010, 8:09am Top

The Irresistible Henry House sounds like it should be good, but you've convinced me that I can walk away. :-) Interesting premise though; I want the NF equivalent of that story.

Apr 13, 2010, 9:46am Top

Exactly! (Which Grunwald does seem open to writing, btw.)

Edited: Apr 14, 2010, 9:39am Top

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Martel opens his new novel with the backstory of Henry, a writer who’s enjoying enormous success from a novel he wrote some years ago but is struggling with his next novel. In fact, an international group of publishers has rejected it as unpublishable and now Henry is in full creative block, his writing pretty much limited to responding to fan mail.

He opens one such envelope and finds a short story by Flaubert -- with passages involving animal massacre highlighted -- along with pages from an apparent draft of a play and a request from the sender: “I need your help.” Noting that the sender’s address is nearby, Henry delivers his response personally, and meets the title characters Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey), and the letter-writer -- an aged taxidermist and aspiring writer also named Henry. And there, past page 50 in a 200-page book, the story finally begins.

Martel has acknowledged that the opening material (including the en masse rejection of a novel) is autobiographical and that he used it to pull the reader in to the story. I found it indulgent in such a short novel, rebuttal-ish and nearly cause for abandonment … until some lines from a conversation about pears :) appeared and reminded me of the prose I so loved in Life of Pi:
(A pear is) a paler, translucent yellow, moving towards beige, but not creamy, more watery, approaching the visual texture of a watercolour wash. (…) Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.
I was hooked! (Though, to be honest, this isn’t a novel filled with beautiful writing.) In the end, Beatrice and Virgil is an animal allegory -- imaginative and sweet … then insidious and horrifying. It’s a very quick read and satisfying even on the surface. But as with other allegories, the symbolism in this one will open much more fully in a group discussion.

Edited: Apr 26, 2010, 12:02pm Top

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman's debut novel, is the story of an international English-language newspaper in Rome, told through alternating threads: a biography-like series of vignettes tracking the newspaper from its founding in 1953 to the economy of today’s print media; and a series of linked short stories involving the newspaper’s employees (and one reader).

The stories are terrific! Set within the workplace and outside in personal life, they involve lots of characters yet each is effectively unpacked -- background characters just enough to make them memorable, main characters enough to make the reader care; many are developed further as they appear again in later stories. They’re fast stories, with lots of dialogue and strong forward momentum -- Rachman isn’t afraid of tension. In one, I was so engaged in the hilarious interaction between a high-energy correspondent and a passive, fledgling wannabe that I thought I was going to have a stroke!

These stories are the most enjoyable fiction I’ve read this year. But because the book is labeled a novel, I expected them to create a larger, overall narrative arc, and, based on their content, some type of “wow!” finish. Instead, I found the ending to be desperately flat. Still, I recommend this book, and am beyond eager to read more by Rachman.

Apr 26, 2010, 12:54pm Top

Ooooh. 'desperately flat' sounds pretty bad. But the rest of the book sounds lovely. I'll keep it in mind - thanks.

Edited: Apr 27, 2010, 4:56pm Top

I found the ending to be desperately flat.

Do you think the ending was more disappointing because you loved the book and wanted more? That happens to me all the time with short stories. I think, "Huh? That's it?" and then feel slightly annoyed that I got so invested in the story in the first place. Anyway, both books sound like books I want to read--thanks!

...Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark. Love that!

P.S. Went to go "thumb" you and couldn't find your reviews. :-(

Apr 28, 2010, 10:27am Top

:) thanks Dan!


>67 ffortsa:, 68 hmm, desperately does seem over-dramatic since it was the opposite I felt at the end: flat. A shrug of the shoulders and bonnie's "that's it?" I did expect more since these were collected as "a novel." There is an overall, cohesive flavor to the book, but this is one where the whole is less than its parts. Very enjoyable, those parts!

Next time you're reading in the bookstore aisle (hello, bonnie), pick this up and read Winston Cheung's chapter (begins around p130).

May 2, 2010, 1:47pm Top

Day for Night by Frederick Reiken

Take a woman vacationing in Florida … and her wildlife guide there … and his band’s female lead singer … and her comatose brother -- and when you finally look up you'll discover you’ve followed Frederick Reiken’s tangent-filled narrative nearly 100 pages into his terrific third novel. And you haven’t yet gotten to a half-dozen other interesting characters.

Day for Night is a literary mystery of coincidences and connections. Its ten chapters (each nearly a short story) are told from different points of view, exploring characters' deep backstories and linking them into a growing story in progress. It calls to mind the TV series Lost and the film Crash -- the chains of events that lead people to meet and interact and discover amazing things.

I liked pulling back and considering how the stories were building and how they might all be brought together. (And the ending? -- I was satisfied!) And I liked being on each page -- traveling around the USA and to Poland and especially Israel with characters I cared about, spending time in nature and with animals, and exploring an aspect of the Holocaust that I’d not previously encountered. Highly recommended.

May 2, 2010, 3:37pm Top

Hmm. This one may need to go on the wishlist! The comparison with Lost is nearly irresistible.

May 2, 2010, 8:44pm Top

Ditto #72 - sounds interesting!

May 6, 2010, 11:30am Top

Aspergirls by Rudy Simone

“Aspergirl” (the term) was coined by author Rudy Simone (herself an Aspergirl) to denote a girl with Asperger Syndrome. And Aspergirls (the book) is nearly as catchy as the term. It’s the paper equivalent of a one-on-one conversation with an older sister or girlfriend or mentor who’s “been there” -- a fast and very casual source of information and support directed primarily to Aspergirls (of all ages) and secondarily to their parents, siblings, spouses, and children.

Simone’s overall purpose in this book seems twofold: first, to help Aspergirls survive (advocating a zero-tolerance for bullying, then framing aspects of different-ness in a way that builds self-esteem); and second, to help them thrive (promoting education/training as the path to financial security and personal independence). Each of the 25 chapters addresses an aspect of Aspergirl life, among them: sensitivities; coping behaviors; puberty; friendships; education; work; marriage; children; aging. I was going to characterize it as more supportive and less informative … until I found myself quoting from it numerous times over coffee with a friend. It’s an accessible, female-centered resource that will be empowering for Aspergirls and revelatory to those who care about them.

May 6, 2010, 11:35am Top

Mrs. Somebody Somebody, an Early Reviewer by Tracy Winn
Mrs. Somebody Somebody was exactly who I wanted to be. The way some kids grow up knowing they want to be mayor, want to have their name in the book of history, I wanted to wear a white dress and a ring that said I was taken care of. It was all mixed up with my hankering to live better, to have pretty things, to be glamorous.
Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a collection of ten short stories that are linked through shared characters and a shared 20th-century mill-town setting of Lowell, Massachusetts.

The writing is lovely, especially regarding aspects of period and setting. But there are many characters and the distribution of focus on various characters feels unbalanced -- some dominating but not for any apparent thematic reason, more a sense that the author was just following her interests. And while many of the stories are interesting, they aren’t compelling. Perhaps the most telling thing I can write here is that it took me seven weeks to read this 190-page collection.

To readers interested in linked stories: I recommend Let the Great World Spin (literary, like Mrs. Somebody Somebody); Day for Night (mysterious and mystical); and The Imperfectionists (gripping and fun). As for myself, I’m looking forward to getting to these from my TBRs: Olive Kitteridge, The Things They Carried, and 253.

May 13, 2010, 3:45pm Top

From the epigraph:
The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February. -- Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons
Light Boxes, a novella by Shane Jones, opens as hot-air balloonist Thaddeus Lowe, his wife Selah and young daughter Bianca, and their whole close-knit town are enjoying the last evenings of pleasant weather before February arrives. But then February does descend, and worse than ever -- ordering the destruction of all forms and creatures of flight and refusing to vacate and make way for spring -- eventually prompting the town to organize an underground resistance.

It seems an allegory of seasonal affective disorder, and I loved it in the beginning -- intriguing, with poetic imagery and emotion, for example from Thaddeus:
“I closed my eyes. I imagined Selah and Bianca in a canoe so narrow they had to lie down with their arms folded on their stomachs, their heads at opposite ends, their toes touching. I dreamed two miniature suns. I set one each upon their foreheads. I dreamed a waterfall and a calm lake of my arms below to catch them.”
I also like its experimental structure (multiple narrators; odd fonts and formatting; chapters comprised of single sentences, partial pages, and lists), which is sometimes used to marvelous effect (and sometimes grows tiresome). I liked the story less as hundreds of days of February pass and things turn from mysterious to dystopian and war-ish, but that’s what really happens in February, yes? And that’s what fans of dystopian fiction may like the most.

May 19, 2010, 1:40pm Top

Jenniemae and James is Brooke Newman’s homage to the civil rights-era friendship between her father, James Newman (mathematician, renowned author, and coiner of "googol" aka "google"), and their African-American housekeeper, Jenniemae Harrington (whose interest in numbers involved an underground lottery).

It’s also a memoir of Brooke’s childhood household in Washington DC with her older brother; their beautiful but psychologically unstable mother, Ruth; the brilliant, moody and philandering James (whose lovers sometimes lived in the house and became friends with Ruth); and the stabilizing influence of Jenniemae, the sixth of twelve children born to Alabama sharecroppers.

The narrative is rose-colored, uneven and redundant, and an Author’s Note acknowledges the (necessarily) imagined nature of the dialogue from Brooke’s childhood. But readers who can put that aside will be satisfied by its passages about James’s work (including his colleague, Dr. Einstein), cold-war politics, race relations ... and its real-life, The Help-like premise.

P.S. Off-topic but related: an interview with Deborah Lacey, the actress who plays Carla, the Drapers’ housekeeper on TV’s Mad Men.

May 19, 2010, 1:52pm Top

An Early Reviewers book, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is the coming-of-age chronology of Kimberly Chang’s life in New York City after she and her mother flee Hong Kong before it returns to Chinese rule.

We see her days at school from sixth grade onward; her evenings working at a sweatshop with her mother; her nights in their freezing, insect- and rodent-infested tenement in Brooklyn; and her desires to be an American teenager. “I was born with a talent,” she writes as the story begins. “…I could learn: quickly and without too much effort.” Indeed, she was first in her class back in Hong Kong, and doing well in America could free her and her mother from their abject poverty here. But would it also take her away from parts of her life that she grows to love?

It’s a well-written debut novel, simple and straightforward, with a narrator whose central focus makes it feel like memoir. It’s a fast and engaging read -- enlightening about modern-day immigration and poverty -- and one that I enjoyed.

Edited: May 24, 2010, 2:35pm Top

I read Maus I in January (see >6 detailmuse: above) but delayed Maus II until now. I liked this volume a little more -- all of the aspects seem deeper here: Auschwitz and afterward; the father-son dynamics; the fears/frustrations in witnessing a parent’s decline; a writer’s creative (and blocked-creative) process. Highly recommended. I have Persepolis queued up as my next graphic-genre read.

May 24, 2010, 2:41pm Top

Gents by Warwick Collins caught my eye a year or more ago as an Early Reviewer but it wasn’t offered in my country. Saw it again on wandering_star’s thread and found a copy through the library. It’s a workplace novella about the Jamaican attendants in a Gent’s restroom near a London Underground stop that draws a lot of gay hookups. A gentle literary story with a satisfying (and surprising) ending.

Edited: May 24, 2010, 2:51pm Top

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern evolved from a Twitter account and is headed for a TV series this summer starring William Shatner. I bought the book and within 24 hours both my husband and I had smiled our ways through the short collection of amusing (and touching) stories about Halpern and his outrageously blunt (yet affecting) father. The stories are supplemented with standalone quotes from Dad, for example:
On Justin getting in trouble at school: “Why would you throw a ball in someone’s face? ... Huh. That’s a pretty good reason. Well, I can’t do much about your teacher being pissed, but me and you are good.”

On Justin having a bloody nose: “What happened? Did somebody punch you in the face?! ... The what? The air is dry? Do me a favor and tell people you got punched in the face.”

On Justin’s return to live with his parents after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend: “All I ask is that you pick up your shit so you don’t leave your bedroom looking like it was used for a gang bang. Also, sorry that your girlfriend dumped you.”
For teen and adult readers who can get beyond the profanity to see the humanity.

eta: Reminds me of David Sedaris's passages about his father.

May 24, 2010, 5:14pm Top

>81 detailmuse:

Sounds superb, and the show should be fun with Shatner.

May 24, 2010, 5:38pm Top

evolved from a Twitter account and is headed for a TV series this summer starring William Shatner


May 24, 2010, 6:24pm Top

I've already got Girl in Translation on my wishlist so glad to know that you liked it. Ha! Laughing over the last "dad" quote in Sh*t my Dad Says. I bet my boys will like that one, and maybe I'll just circle that quote--do you think they'll get the message?

May 25, 2010, 11:01pm Top

Hi MJ, I went right to my library's web site and put Sh*t My Dad Says on hold. I think we'll all (especially my teen) enjoy that one! I also just finished Girl in Translation and thought it was very good, too.

Edited: Jun 2, 2010, 8:24am Top

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

On her ninth birthday, a bite of cake awakens Rose Edelstein to something new: a sort of synesthetic food-intuition through which she can sense things about the source of the food -- the conditions of the land and factory and the emotions of the people involved.

In the case of the home-baked cake it’s her mother that she senses, and discovering the deep internal sadness that belies her mother’s façade of cheer is difficult for Rose, who’s hungry for connection in a household of estrangement from her OCD-ish father and autist-like older brother, Joseph. For example, from a walk with Joseph and his brilliant but more social friend, George:
When I crossed the street, according to my mother, I still had to hold someone’s hand. At ten, I would be able to cross streets unhanded. I’d held on to Joesph’s many times before, for many years, but holding his was like holding a plant, and the disappointment of fingers that didn’t grasp back was so acute that at some point I’d opted to take his forearm instead. For the first few street crossings, that’s what I did, but on the corner at Oakwood, on an impulse, I grabbed George’s. Right away: fingers, holding back.
Told in the soft-focus narrative of an adult looking back, this gentle, coming-of-age story about a family has fantasy and a magical realism that brings to mind Like Water for Chocolate and The School of Essential Ingredients.

Jun 7, 2010, 2:53pm Top

The Lion by Nelson DeMille

He’s back -- and on game!

And by “he” I mean both John Corey (former NYPD and current loose-cannon contract agent on the federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force), and Nelson DeMille (author extraordinaire of political suspense and hilarity, whose last couple of books started to worry me about the extraordinaire part).

DeMille’s 16th book, fifth in his John Corey series, is a post-9/11 sequel to The Lion's Game. Here it’s 2003 New York City and Asad Khalil is back to finish his revenge against the 1986 military attack on Libya that killed his mother and siblings. And to finish John Corey.

But that’s enough said about the plot ... which, whether it’s terrorism, conspiracy or the KGB, really isn’t the reason I read DeMille. I read him for his smart-ass, alpha-male-with-tender-underbelly protagonists. And while a few sections here are by necessity in the third-person perspective of other characters, they thankfully aren’t long stretches like in Wild Fire. Instead, the majority is first-person Corey, narrating more of a police procedural than rollicking thriller, and that slower pace lets us revel in the Corey persona. Also making their usual cameos are the good guys of New York’s Finest; the bungling FBI; and the evil CIA. And a caution: there are brief scenes of graphic violence.

DeMille gives enough background for readers new to the series to enjoy this work (and I recommend that they then read the earlier books, particularly Plum Island -- first and still the best). The novel’s pacing is good, its length is great (it’s not repetitious or bloated like The Gate House) -- and its final four sentences are perfection.

Jun 7, 2010, 7:23pm Top

>87 detailmuse: Yay! I'm so glad to hear that this one worked! I love John Corey and can't wait to read this next one.

Jun 8, 2010, 9:19am Top

Joanne! Happy to see another DeMille fan! I didn't see The General's Daughter in your library, that was my first and is neck-and-neck with Plum Island as my favorite. It probably has the wry humor I love so much, but I mostly remember it as absolutely riveting.

Also glad to see (elsewhere) that you loved The Imperfectionists!

Jun 10, 2010, 8:53pm Top

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

It’s 1962 Washington DC and 11-year-old Franny Chapman is troubled. At home, her Air Force-officer father is often absent and her mother is distracted. Her college-age sister is growing away, her younger brother shines as “Mr. Perfect,” and her WWI-veteran uncle’s behavior is growing embarrassingly erratic.

Things aren’t better at school, where Franny feels overlooked, her closest friendship is disintegrating, and she’s entering the new territory of a romantic crush. And in the larger world? Nuclear annihilation -- when, into the wounds of WWII and Korea and the all-consuming threat of Communism and nuclear war, comes the flash of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I love this book's “documentary novel” concept, which weaves Franny’s story with a scrapbook-like, history-rich assortment of news headlines, photos, song lyrics and pop culture of the time. But it's my caution, too -- that the novel's story is solidly aimed at tweens but the documentary aspect seems aimed at adults, especially the baby-boomer generation. To help kids understand it all, this is a great book for (grand)parents / (grand)kids to read together. Plus, an adult reading companion will be helpful if the characters' 1960s cold-war preparations (fallout shelters; “duck and cover”) invite comparison to today’s terrorism threat.

Countdown is the first volume in what Wiles has planned as a “sixties trilogy” (subsequent novels to be set in 1966 and 1968), and indeed she plants the stirrings of Vietnam and civil rights in this volume. I’m looking forward to them.

Jun 17, 2010, 11:08am Top

Wow! For anyone interested in Theodore Gray's The Elements (msg #15 above) -- I see it's available through the iTunes App Store. It's getting attention now as an example of the future of (enhanced) e-books.

It's a big file and I'm not sure I want it for my iPod touch ... but on the iPad I bet it's phenomenal!

Edited: Jun 22, 2010, 9:54am Top


Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit by Karen Pearlman is a primer for film-editing students but I read it as a writer to get a different slant on storytelling. Highly motivated film buffs will also get a lot from it. Full review here.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros -- very, very short vignettes of a year in the life of a Latina growing up in 1960s Chicago make this coming-of-age classic read like a tender slideshow.

David Freedman’s thesis in Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us is almost a flat-out pronouncement that all experts, advisors and gurus -- even the most prestigious and even those quoted in the most prominent sources -- are always wrong.

According to Freedman, everyone involved with expert advice is motivated by self-interest: experts are biased toward results that promote their careers; the media is biased toward flashy results and personalities that increase ratings; and the public is biased toward simple, sure-fire, actionable advice. Even today’s democratization of expertise (via blogs, rating/review sites, Google rankings) doesn't overcome these biases.

Freedman also dulls the shine on research’s gold standard (the randomized, double-blind controlled trial) by exploring how sloppy mistakes taint the data; how the pressures of academic tenure, lab funding, corporate profits and consultancy contracts drive fraud (data invention and falsification); and how little of this is caught through the peer review process.

This is an important topic and the book is accessibly written. But to be clear: it's very similar to the expert advice he skewers -- full of broad, sweeping statements and detailed examples biased toward his thesis. (Freedman acknowledges this late in the book and amends himself, but only to, “there is some reason to suspect that most experts are usually wrong.”) During my reading, frustration and pessimism grew into profound discouragement and then a spiraling hopelessness. There is no optimism here; even his chapter, “Eleven Simple Never-Fail Rules” -- a summary of red flags about advice -- is the height of irony with its (seemingly) sure-fire, actionable content.

And thus my advice (!): if this thesis is new to you and you want to know more, read this book but read it fast -- get in, get the overall picture, get out. Then decide how much of it you're going to fit into your worldview.

Jun 22, 2010, 10:08am Top

I can't believe I've only just discovered your thread! Some fantastic reads (and reviews) here. Now I have to go to add to my wishlist...

Jun 22, 2010, 10:54am Top

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us sounds fascinating, but I'm not sure I'm up for that much discouragement right now. But I'll add it to my wishlist.

Jun 22, 2010, 11:35am Top

like a tender slideshow

I love how you write, MJ! So, I already had Wrong in my library, but with no name attached to it. Tag! You're it! ;-)

Jun 22, 2010, 5:50pm Top

I have put Wrong on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist. It will eventually go with Rethinking Expertise. It fits a couple of elements of my credo, everything you know is wrong and don't believe everything you think, and one or two of the elements of my belief that bureaucracies always fail.


Jun 22, 2010, 8:37pm Top

Hey all! Well I sure didn't give it 3 stars because it was "meh" :) it had helpful and horrible aspects and I guess that showed. But I hate imprecision, and so the topic and the treatment made me crabby for a week. Would have skimmed or abandoned it if it hadn't been an arc.

I actually began Wrong: Why Experts... as one of a pair of books, the other Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. I'm now on to the second -- a deep and philosophical exploration of why we relish being right but are vitally shaped (learn) by being wrong.

>96 Mr.Durick: Robert, you make me interested in identifying my own credo. Is yours a lifetime accumulation of awareness or did you come about it in some organized way?

Jun 23, 2010, 2:03am Top

More of the former than of the latter, but I've done some of the latter.

I wish the last minister at our church had led us in more of it, but demands on him led him in several other directions. This is a Unitarian church where we individually are called on to do a 'free and responsible search.' We are not provided with the answers although there are some social pressures to be liberal. I am at the church, I think, because I was already engaged in that search, and the church is helpful rather than necessary.

I'm 65, and my credo is introductory, not because I have started recently but because there is so much.

And there is the anosognosics dilemma pointed out by geneg in another thread. I take my wisdom wherever I can get it.


Edited: Jun 23, 2010, 9:47am Top

detailmuse - I wasn't aware you are a writer! 'Wrong' doesn't worry me, but seems like common sense oversimplified (wrong ? :) )...oversimplified in that I've seen research get it right, and the paths it took to get there - but you need to understand the methods to understand in what way it's right - something the media, as an example, isn't usually able to do, or convey.

Being Wrong sounds fascinating. Looking forward to your take.

Edited: Jun 24, 2010, 1:22pm Top

>99 dchaikin: Dan -- no books (yet!) :))
common sense oversimplified yes, and exaggerated. I'm a scientist and (*sigh*) a cynic and while I don't believe the problem is as deep as he paints, its breadth is alarming. And where the media is involved -- profoundly problematic.

>98 Mr.Durick: Robert, terrific article. A little break and then I’ll get to the rest in the series. I admit to having been curiously entertained by Rumsfeld’s literary/philosophical musings, including the passage quoted in the article:

"There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know."

I wonder if Dunning-Kruger will appear in Schulz’s Being Wrong? I felt hints of knowns and unknowns when she wrote that it’s impossible to be (i.e. exist in a state of) wrong … the state feels like being right until the moment you realize you’re wrong, and then you aren’t wrong anymore.

hmm. Just stopping by to edit myself.

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 12:39pm Top

>27 C4RO: C4RO, and courtesy of recent posts by bragan and bob mcc --
I'm reminded of Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and its graph of Napoleon's march ... and of the webcomic xkcd ... therefore my delight today in finding this! (click image to see uber-sized)

Jul 12, 2010, 5:08pm Top

Excellent! Nice to see Tufte's influence spreading.

Jul 13, 2010, 1:18pm Top

Very nice charting/ design! Thanks for links.

Jul 15, 2010, 12:38pm Top

This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia

When 32-year-old Arthur Rook's wife Amy dies unexpectedly, he finds a box filled with her mementos and decides to connect with her through her past. He follows the address on an unmailed postcard and arrives at the Darby-Jones boardinghouse in tiny Ruby Falls, New York, and there he meets the house's owner/operator Mona Jones, her teenage daughter Oneida, and the boarders at the house.

From that main storyline hang accompanying stories, told through alternating points of view: Mona's best-friendship with Amy in childhood; Oneida's growing up and apart from Mona and her interest in classmate Eugene ("Wendy") Wendell; and Wendy's coming-of-age in an eclectic household.

It's a story of past events and current secrets, and those past events are told mostly through backstory and interior rumination rather than unfolding action; it feels sluggish and predictable. And while I'd looked forward to the boardinghouse setting and some quirky residents, neither felt very developed nor even made much of an appearance. Only the Wendy thread kept me reading -- a complicated character and a fresh premise suited to development as its own book.

YMMV, it seems I'm an outlier on this one.

Jul 15, 2010, 12:49pm Top

A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities (by J. C. McKeown) is a perfectly descriptive title for this collection of miscellany -- more than a thousand facts, anecdotes and quotes from the Roman era, accompanied by black-and-white photos of coinage, artwork and architecture. And its back-cover blurbs -- by Ovid, Cicero and Horace, among others -- are a comedic mock-up that perfectly sets the book's light tone.

The volume is best suited to browsing -- open a drawer (a chapter) or two at a sitting and skim snippets about Roman life from the personal (gender, family, sex, food, toilets) to the societal (names, laws, professions, architecture, military, rulers). As a reference source, it's decidedly casual -- McKeown acknowledges his motivation is interest not academics, and passages are attributed but not sourced. The lack of an index hampers accessibility and keeps information buried in one chapter even when it's relevant to others. A brief glossary does define important people and events, but this isn't a get-acquainted book for Roman-naïve readers. Instead, it will be interesting to anyone familiar with the basics of Roman history, and fun for aficionados.

Jul 15, 2010, 1:01pm Top

How did you hear about This Must Be the Place and what did you hear or read that made you want to read it, MJ? This idea of connecting with a spouse's past feels so old-fashioned with our current ability to instantly connect and research via the internet. Living in a boardinghouse sounds so pre-WW II. Maybe I think that because my family's first house was a boardinghouse before my parents bought it. I loved imagining the people who lived there before we did, especially since they left a little library of books behind. Did the premise of the book feel a bit old to you? Since you don't sound all that excited about this story, and I much prefer a single narrator, I think I'll pass on this one. Got any good "summer reading" coming up?

Edited: Jul 15, 2010, 1:06pm Top

>104 detailmuse: I had to look up YMMV :), but I've decided This Must Be the Place sounds decent enough to give a try. Thanks for the recommendation (or not?).....

Jul 15, 2010, 2:06pm Top

LOL auntmarge, and sorry :)

bonnie, I first noticed it on Early Reviewers and liked the quirky, nostalgic, "Mayberry" premise. And the aspect of secrets. Publishers Weekly praised it and used the word "literary" (not, IMO). I think the fact that a husband doesn't know his wife's background requires a bigger suspension of disbelief than whether he could find it on the Internet (unlikely here); excellent point though, I don't recall if the Internet was even mentioned. Re: the narrator, it's third-person throughout but close-in, through different characters.

I'd love to have been a kid in your family's former-boardinghouse! I'll be back with some summer reading ... I'm feeling disorganized and quite appreciate your prompt.

Jul 16, 2010, 2:39pm Top

Ok, in-process and on-docket:

I’m currently enjoying Being Wrong (psychology/philosophy about erring) and The Disappearing Spoon (light/curious history of the chemical elements -- their formation, discovery, naming, and assembly into the Periodic Table -- and how they’ve affected our history). Next up: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.

For fiction, I just started The Breaking of Eggs (after the collapse of communism, a 61-year-old leftist who wrote travel guides to Eastern-bloc countries begins to interact with capitalist Americans). I’m trying Machine (science-y and literary about a drop of crude oil from its prehistoric formation to its use as a fossil fuel) as my first e-book using the Kindle app on my iPod Touch ... I get to it very infrequently. I’m also going to read A Visit From the Goon Squad for its linked-stories aspect (but, weirdly, I’m still saving Olive Kitteridge, which I anticipate will be the best of the genre).

I want to read The Summer Book (grand-mother/g-daughter summer together) while it’s summer, and I’d like to read a tome -- further into Infinite Jest, or (refreshed by the NY Russian spy scandal) maybe The Charm School (cold-war Russia’s KGB orientation program on how to pass as American).

I looked at my “up soon” shelf but had to look away; I want to read at least ten of them next! For a peek, see my tag, 2010tbr.

Jul 16, 2010, 5:53pm Top

It is interesting to me that you see Olive Kitteridge as an example of a genre, linked stories, and will be reading it in that light. I read it as an exposition of character, the exposition happening in linked stories or vignettes. I think that your review, when it comes, could have some entirely novel understanding in it. I hope you will announce it when you post your review.


Jul 17, 2010, 10:35am Top

Yes, character absolutely.

I love aha! moments, twists on perspective, contrasting perspectives, sideways looks at things. Rashomon is high on my to-see DVD list. So I’m looking forward to Olive Kitteridge as a character developed through multiple narrators -- and not just multiples alternating in a linear storyline but rather a jigsaw structure of linked stories, which I think makes the mind work and brings more aha!s.

Jul 23, 2010, 1:20pm Top

An Early Reviewer snag, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So is Mark Vonnegut’s follow-up to The Eden Express, his 1975 memoir of a series of psychotic breakdowns in his early 20s.

This is memoir also, of perseverance, told through a collection of thoughts, vignettes, and longer pieces. Vonnegut writes about attending Harvard Medical School (of twenty programs he applied to, his only acceptance); a passage describing his first patient death, alongside a staff nurse, reminded me how often nurses guide doctors-to-be through that experience. He writes about his career as a pediatrician, including criticism of contemporary health care and the health-insurance industry. He includes passages about his own childhood -- his weirdly prescient (and mentally ill) mother; his plainly weird (and genius) father (before he was successful and famous); the orphaned cousins his parents took in and raised as his siblings. He describes a medical mission to Honduras. He examines marriage, fatherhood, being alcoholic … and a fourth psychotic episode, wherein he takes us inside his mind as it breaks down.

Each chapter opens with a personal photo or sample of his own artwork, and he includes bits of advice about sanity and sobriety throughout, for example: “It’s possible within any given moment of any given day to choose between self and sickness. Rarely are there big heroic choices that will settle matters once and for all. The smallest positive step is probably the right one.”

Vonnegut is curious, optimistic, fun, philosophical -- and this gentle memoir is highly recommended.


P.S. hmm, a couple other resonant passages:

“At some point in my childhood, my father gave us all code names. He was Boraseesee. My mother was Mullerstay. I was Kindo. If we were ever trapped or captured and wanted to let another know that it was really us, we could use these names. It was a long shot, but when I was locked up {in a psych facility}, Kindo tried hard as hell to get word out to Boraseesee and Mullerstay.”

“The arts are not extracurricular. {…} Art is lunging forward without certainty about where you are going or how to get there, being open to and dependent on what luck, the paint, the typo, the dissonance, give you. Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.”

Jul 23, 2010, 1:42pm Top

Great review, as usual, MJ! I wanted to add it even before I read the quotes, but those sure are good ones. I wouldn't want the mental illness, but I'm always so jealous of people who grow up in such interesting families. The conversations at the dinner table alone!

Jul 23, 2010, 1:55pm Top

P.S. Just looked at your 2010tbr list. Wish I had known you wanted some of those titles, I could have sent you my copies. I'm reading American Salvage too--or was, it's on hold while I tackle the 10+ books I have checked out from the library. The Things They Carried is on hold at the library waiting for me, btw, so we'll have something in common to talk about.

Aug 1, 2010, 4:28pm Top

>bonnie, I hate going through the "interesting" parts of life, but they do make good story fodder!

Aug 1, 2010, 4:37pm Top

It seems like a previous life: the mid-1980s and NASA’s program to send the first American “civilian” into space. I was interested, then sidelined when applications were restricted to teachers, then stunned by the Challenger launch disaster. But now I’m delighted to get a sort of ride-along with the clever and uber-curious Mary Roach in Packing for Mars.

She begins: “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with.” And then she dives in to explore that human machinery in space and how everything -- procedures, equipment and supplies -- is designed to best serve it.

Through examples from animal simulations and crash-test cadavers, the race-for-space/ shuttle/ space-station projects, and potential Mars-length missions, she examines astronaut selection; the effects of isolation, inactivity and cramped spaces; the spectrum from weightlessness to multiple g-forces; eating, eliminating, and hygiene; and ... well, enough with the listmaking; it hints at dull and anyone who’s read Roach knows she doesn’t do dull. Instead, she mines excellent and surprising information about physics and biology -- and what most captures me is her practicality, including this from a passage about religious observations aboard the space station: “Zero gravity and a ninety-minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that a {guideline} was drafted. Rather than require {them} to pray five times during each ninety-minute orbit of Earth, they were allowed to go by the twenty-four-hour cycle of the launch location.” How to stay oriended toward Mecca at such speed and prostrate oneself in weightlessness are also addressed.

I loved Roach's Stiff, but Spook -- not as much, so skipped Bonk (until now, maybe). She's a front-and-center kind of narrator, a participant even, and Spook seemed too much about her. Here, she’s back in terrific Stiff form -- (wo)manning the audio and video for us like a TV news crew, giving just an occasional glimpse of her metaphoric microphone to remind us she's there. Though she isn’t a slave to structure and linearity, there’s a satisfying organization of her material into chapters here. And all of her interesting-but-off-topic segues? -- they’re here too, in a hundred witty footnotes. She also lists dozens of space-travel articles, histories, biographies and memoirs in a bibliography. Highly recommended.

Aug 1, 2010, 4:56pm Top


Extraordinary Clouds, Richard Hamblyn’s follow-up to The Cloud Book (which I discovered on auntmarge’s thread), is a collection of photographs that illustrate the unusual designs and shapes of clouds -- including a section on man-made clouds (i.e. aircraft contrails: currently “the world’s most abundant cloud type”!).

Submitted from around the world and authenticated as non-Photoshopped, the images are printed in stunning color on smooth, heavy paper. Each is accompanied by a paragraph or two of explanatory text, though it's in a tiny, fragile font that’s hard to read.

My favorite design is the paisley von Karman vortex; my favorite shape is the UFO-ish lenticular.

For some reason (probably its small size or aerial photography aspect), the book reminded me of Alex MacLean's The Playbook (aerial photographs of playgrounds, sports venues, amusement parks, beaches, etc.) and so I also just re-read that, very fun.

Edited: Aug 1, 2010, 7:57pm Top

Great Packing for Mars review. I got that one from ER, too, and found it delightful -- as I knew I would.

And if expecting a less involved perspective from Roach is the reason you skipped Bonk, I do recommend going back to it. The subject matter in Spook may not have allowed for much hands-on research -- it would be a bit much to expect anyone to actually die for their art -- but sex is another matter.

Aug 1, 2010, 10:50pm Top

I never considered the problems of religious ritual in space - that's actually pretty funny. Fun review of Packing for Mars.

Aug 3, 2010, 11:52am Top


>118 bragan: I like a less-visible author. For me, nonfiction is about the topic, and only in memoir (autobio, personal experience essay) is the author the topic. It’s a fine line: I like authors to show up in the narrative voice but am distracted when they hijack the topic to themselves. Roach (and reporters like CNN’s Jeannie Moos) straddle the line, mostly successfully. Maybe because their quirkiness is already distracting (and entertaining) me?

Aug 3, 2010, 3:46pm Top

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
“I ended up with an honors degree in physics, but {…} my real education was in my professors’ stories. {…} I realized that there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table.”
Kean came to those professors already primed for their stories -- by having been fascinated to find mercury not only in the Periodic Table of science class but also in his childhood thermometers … in literature’s mad hatter … and in the mercury-laxative leftovers discovered in Lewis & Clark’s trail of latrines.

Though I didn’t keep strict track, I think Kean includes a tale for every single element in this terrific book. And while he did so, he opened my eyes to things I’d forgotten (or not ever known!!), for example:

• Chemistry is based on atoms’ electrons, and physics on their nuclei;
• “Alchemy” is true: every element traces back to the fusion of solar hydrogen atoms;
• The familiar Periodic Table is just one of many potential configurations of the elements, some of which are 3D;
• There are more than three states of matter;
• Our bodies don’t monitor whether we’re inhaling enough oxygen, only that we’re exhaling enough carbon dioxide;
• Midas was real as well as fictional;
• Why sci-fi life-forms are based on silicon;
• Why Americans call it “aluminum” but it’s “aluminium” to everybody else.

There’s chemistry here, and physics and biology. But there’s also astronomy, geology, history, politics, warfare, economics, gender studies, human ambition and inter-personal conflict. And there’s a whole lotta humor. There are also dozens of entertaining and informative endnotes, suggestions for further reading, and an index. The only way to make it even better would be to read it alongside Theodore Gray’s The Elements.

Get started by taking a look at the disappearing spoon of the title.

Aug 4, 2010, 9:11am Top

Sold! That flew right onto my wishlist ;-)

Aug 4, 2010, 12:39pm Top

It's on mine, too, now. After I managed to resist buying it a few weeks ago and everything!

Aug 4, 2010, 12:47pm Top

Sounds really good, MJ! Which would you recommend reading first? The Disappearing Spoon? or The Elements?

Aug 4, 2010, 1:31pm Top

mwah-ha-ha to all :)

My recommendation:

Buy an iPad and the enhanced e-book version of The Elements, then refer to it while reading The Disappearing Spoon.

(sigh) Not having an iPad, nor having seen Gray's e-book in person, that's only a theoretical recommendation :) but it's one of the first things I'll do when I win the lottery.

If you're a casual pop-sci buff, get The Elements at the library, it's a witty and lush coffee-table book to browse through. If that appeals, move on to The Disappearing Spoon, which is all text, but not all science.

Aug 4, 2010, 1:39pm Top

You are evil! ;-) How did you know that I want an iPad? I may just buy one for myself for my birthday. If I can figure out how to put my wordstudy "games" on it and use it with my students, I can even write off the expense. Wave of the future, ma'am!

Aug 4, 2010, 1:53pm Top

bonnie, find a developer to make your wordstudy games into an app, then sell the app to pay for your iPad!

Aug 5, 2010, 12:01pm Top

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell

Sixty-one-year-old Feliks Zhukovski is a Pole living in Paris, a communist-turned-leftist, and the author/owner of a successful series of travel guides to Eastern-bloc countries. But it’s 1991 and communism has just fallen, and Feliks doesn’t have the manpower to revise all of his guides, nor frankly the political stomach to encourage travel in the area’s emerging capitalism. When an American publisher expresses interest in buying him out, Feliks makes contacts that prompt him toward a chain reaction of insights about his carefully structured life -- his political beliefs; the mother who abandoned him in childhood; the older brother who ran off to join WWII’s French resistance; the girl who got away.

It’s a story about WWII and its aftermath, and I appreciated the fresh slant of its emphasis on the Soviet/Stalin aspect (which sent me to the history books to refresh my knowledge of the war and political-economic theory). But it’s more a story of the damage people carry. There is much interior rumination here, and while I find that tedious when its purpose is to fill in backstory or wallow, I liked it here because it always moved the story forward. In fact, the interior rumination sort of is the story -- a terrific exploration of an introverted, logical thinker who lives completely in his intellect, relying on the facts he personally gathers despite having gathered many of them long ago as a naive child. To put a Myers-Briggs label on it, Feliks is a strong ISTJ, and it’s interesting to watch him incorporate new information incrementally (with the rare leap of an “aha” moment) -- all the while updating the decades-old stories he’s told himself to include a little more heart and a bigger picture of the world.

Aug 5, 2010, 8:18pm Top

Sounds very interesting - I'll have to look out for that.

Aug 7, 2010, 4:15pm Top

all the while updating the decades-old stories he’s told himself to include a little more heart and a bigger picture of the world.

I like that goal. By the way, had to laugh, MJ, at your use of a Myer-Briggs label to describe a character.

Aug 7, 2010, 4:29pm Top

Sounds interesting, and as an INTJ I feel I should read it.

Aug 10, 2010, 5:30pm Top

In Change by Design, IDEO CEO Tim Brown fleshes out the concept of Design Thinking he introduced in a June 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review: that design is best when it’s not a tweak, made near the end of product development to fine-tune or make pretty, but rather is a substantive, beginning-to-end way of thinking; a 360-degree method of business collaboration.

I’d heard terrific things about IDEO and Brown but my first direct experience was through this book -- where I twice didn’t make it to page 50 and only now persevered to finish. It’s not a difficult read, it’s dull. There are some interesting concepts (particularly about prototyping and paying attention to customers at the extremes) and case studies (showcasing IDEO projects). But it’s rarely inspiring or entertaining and mostly accumulates rather than builds. In stark contrast, I’ve just finally watched clips of Brown’s presentations (for example, on creativity and play) and feel positively carbonated! My recommendation: first get familiar with Tim Brown, then let his infectious enthusiasm carry over to your reading of this book.

P.S. This is a serious business-creativity book. For one a whole lot less serious, read Gordon MacKenzie's weird and wonderful Orbiting the Giant Hairball. For a lite read, try Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. For all-over creativity, read Michael Gelb's How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.

Aug 10, 2010, 8:44pm Top

thanks for the rundown. As a systems and data designer, I can see how a whole book of that stuff can be dull - I've occasionally numbed a few minds myself when waxing enthusiastic about a course of action. But I do think the premise is sound. Start at the beginning. Design is not painting daisies on the side of a pig - it has to be baked in.

Aug 17, 2010, 8:48am Top

In Passages in Caregiving, Gail Sheehy (of Passages fame) chronicles the psychological, emotional, and logistical stages involved in providing care to chronically ill and dying loved ones.

Part self-help, part resource guide, and part memoir, it’s okay in each part and good in the overall. The self-help aspect is probably strongest, where readers will recognize themselves in the caregiver stories Sheehy shares to illustrate her continuum of eight caregiver “passages” -- from the initial shock of illness and life’s new normal, through the accumulation of events than can lead to control issues and despair, to acceptance and letting go. The resource-guide aspect is probably weakest -- strategies for each passage are buried throughout the text rather than collected in an easy-reference appendix, and they’re mostly useful to people who are already rich in resources (time, energy, connections, money).

And Sheehy’s personal experience of giving care during her husband’s 17-year illness is somewhere in between. Whereas the stories about other caregivers are easy to read -- illustrative and objective -- her own memoir-ish passages are illustrative but close-in personal. It feels insensitive to admit, but I didn't want to keep diving into Sheehy's deep waters. Those passages are all in italics, and eventually I skipped them and came back, after I finished the book, and read them all together.

It’s a good starting point about caregiving and best read in advance of needing it.

Aug 26, 2010, 10:37am Top

Discovered on Mr.Durick's thread, David Eagleman’s Sum is a collection of forty 2-3-page vignettes as variations on the theme of afterlife. God is a woman, man, couple, deity, alien creature, frequent researcher, and sometimes AWOL; the afterlives are filled with reflection and purpose. Most of the vignettes finish with a twist that opens them up and turns them into cautionary tales -- the afterlife as mirror to the lived life. They prompt an appreciation for life and inspire a more mindfully lived life.

They’re extraordinarily imaginative, reminiscent of the mind-bending variations on the theme of time in Alan Lightman’s Einstein's Dreams. Whereas Lightman’s vignettes combine into a narrative, each of these stands alone. They accumulate into something like a small bag of M&Ms -- delightful one by one or as a handful, but growing into sameness if you gobble up the whole bag.

Aug 26, 2010, 10:45am Top

As the full title states, "The Perfect Shape + The Perfect Sauce = The Geometry of Pasta," so the talents of book designer Caz Hildebrand + London chef Jacob Kenedy = this terrific book.

I discovered it as one of wandering_star's recently added books, and was so captured that I bought it within a few days of it coming out in the US. Part history-of-pasta and part cookbook, it begins with an overview of pastas (southern Italian peasants’ plain semolina to wealthy northerners’ incorporation of eggs and different starches) and tomato sauces (also varying from light to rich), and the concept of matching the delicacy/sturdiness of a pasta to that of a sauce. And then comes that geometry -- the actual pairings of those shapes and sauces via a 270-page alphabetic encyclopedia of dozens and dozens of pasta shapes, including:

• A short history of each pasta (referencing climate, culture and politics/economics), for example the intricate shapes that were made “when housewives had to fill long winter evenings,” and the delicate and haughty pastas of the Renaissance, which “specialist nuns would make in their convents”;
• An arresting b/w graphic of its shape;
• In some cases, recipes for making that pasta at home;
• In all cases, recipes for sauces/fillings suited to that shape;
• Suggestions for other sauces (an Index makes it easy to locate sauce recipes).

I'd expected this book to be glossy and slightly oversized, so was surprised to find it the size and construction of a hardcover novel. While that doesn't sound like a book to be taken into the kitchen and later wiped down, you'll want to do so – it’s filled with easy-to-follow recipes for every level of cook, from quick sauces with a few common ingredients, to sauces involving a dozen ingredients and progressive steps that are mini-tutorials in cooking technique. They include olive oil and/or butter and a wide range of fish, fowl and meat. Most serve 2-4 people as a main course; some serve 6-8 and a few feed a crowd. But even if you're an armchair foodie with little intention of preparing the recipes, this book's design and interesting (even amusing) discussion make it a delightful read.

Aug 26, 2010, 11:51pm Top

I am still on The Flavour Thesaurus as my dip-into book, but this will have to be next!

Aug 27, 2010, 4:48pm Top

That sounds interesting, both as a practical cookbook and as an interesting read.

Sep 1, 2010, 7:48pm Top

>137 wandering_star:, 138
I made the lightest of his tomato sauces for dinner tonight -- tomatoes from the farmers' market chopped and pureed, olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper ... simmered for half an hour or so. So fresh, very good!

Edited: Sep 2, 2010, 9:03am Top

>139 detailmuse:: OK, now I'm going to have to go downstairs and make some Pasta Puttanesca, 'cas that's the only sauce I can make fast.

>132 detailmuse:: Regarding Change by Design, I think some authors get so excited by the good press they get for an interesting article that they can't resist stretching it out into a book. For example, I love Atul Gawande, but there wasn't enough in The Checklist Manifesto to warrant that book, imo. Totally important information to get out though. I'll go watch Brown's video before I check out his book. Which reminds me, don't you just love TED?

Edited: Sep 2, 2010, 8:39am Top

>132 detailmuse: Thanks for that list! We talk a lot about design in my workaday world (computer systems), and it is absolutely true that a tweak at the end isn't nearly as effective as the right start. I will put that book on my wishlist, just to remember it.

edited to add: look at that! I answered that post twice - guess design is on my brain these days.

Sep 2, 2010, 10:48am Top

136 - I wishlisted this, but I'm feeling very close to breaking down and buying it.

Edited: Sep 2, 2010, 4:16pm Top

haha maybe I'll resort to posting photos of my finished products...

Several weeks later, the biggest takeaway for me is still about prototyping -- converting ideas into physically tangible form as early as possible, preferably immediately. No matter how rough/crude, it's more design-centric to see and use a prototype than to talk about an idea. And from that list of books, I'm practically an evangelist* for Orbiting the Giant Hairball.

I like the TED site but have hardly explored it yet. And I hate bloated books! But a journal article, fleshed out into a small book, can really get a message out, especially across industries. Being in healthcare (and being a huge fan of offloading my brain to lists), I suspect I'll be an acolyte* of Gawande :)

*hmm, why all the religion nouns??

Sep 4, 2010, 12:24pm Top

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Sep 12, 2010, 3:54pm Top

This thread has been loading sluggishly, please join me over here for a fresh part 2!

Group: Club Read 2010

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