Tuesday, November 24, 2015

If anyone asks, just lie

I've been listening to a lot of audio YA lately and I'd like to recommend a book.  Here's the problem: I can't really say much about it without spoiling it.  It's called We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  I guess I can tell you that the main character's name is Cadence and she goes by Cady.  She comes from a very wealthy East Coast family, and spends summers on her grandfather's island off the Massachusetts coast.  Something happened a couple years earlier... but I don't want to say much about that.  The ending is kind of a surprise and it reminded me a lot of... no, I can't say that, either.  Ummm...

Well, I guess I'll just say it was a very popular YA book last year and most people either loved it or hated it.  I liked it, although the way the suspense is drawn out was kind of uncomfortable.  But I quickly became hooked and couldn't stop listening.  The Los Angeles Times said it was "a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help."  If all that vagueness sounds remotely interesting to you, I strongly suggest you not go looking for much information – the Times article is pretty good but too many reviews have spoilers, which you'll want to avoid if you hope to enjoy the book.  Profanity was much less than some books I've read lately.

Another interesting YA book, although I'm not so sure how much I'd recommend it, was Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.  It's about Lucky Linderman, a smallish fifteen-year old who seems to be a favorite target of the town bully, Nader McMillan.  He tries to tell adults about the bullying, but no one really listens.  He gets in trouble when his school project tries to survey students on how they would commit suicide if they were considering it.  His parents are concerned but disconnected – his dad withdraws into work and cooking while his mom swims more and more laps at the community pool – and even school counselors give him a hard time.  Lucky's only escape is in his dreams when he visits his grandfather who never returned from the Vietnam War.

First of all, my lukewarm endorsement of the book is due to the profanity and crassness, which is pretty bad (and disappointing to hear coming from the reader, Kirby Heyborne, whom I really like).  Also, some characters and a few situations felt overly cliché, and most of the adults are buttheads, but that's typical of much YA fiction.  But, it's also a very compelling story and I couldn't stop listening.  Lucky draws the reader's sympathy without being self-pitying – King does a very good job in that regard.  It's an interesting story about the regular problems of adolescence for a mostly timid kid, but overlaid with the POW/MIA issue and just a touch of magical realism in his dreams.  And I actually kind of liked it. 

So, for what it's worth, those are my recommendations – with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Foul-mouthed kids

I've always loved to read, but while I was finishing up my degrees – mostly part-time at night – all I had time for is what teachers assigned me to read.  So, when I finished school and could read what I wanted, I read a lot of bestseller stuff I'd missed like Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz.  And, of course, Stephen King.

Stephen King is the guy responsible for many of the horror movies probably since before I was a teenager, either directly or indirectly.  And (even though most of the movies are pretty bad) he can be an amazing storyteller!  Books like The Dark Half and Needful Things still creep me out, and there's few things scarier than Pennywise the Clown.  The problem – for me, anyway – is the vulgarity and profanity; it's pretty far beyond 'over-the-top.'  In his On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft – which is one of my favorite books – he says that's what makes a story authentic.  And I know some people talk that way and aren't bothered by it.  But I am.  I don't talk that way.  Most people I associate with don't talk that way, at least not around me.  And it feels degrading and even burdensome to hear or read, and that's why I haven't read a SK novel in over fifteen years.  Well... until now.

Probably my favorite SK book-turned-movie is "Stand By Me."  It's not a horror movie, although the language and the theme were still enough to get it an R rating.  It's from a novella called The Body and tells the story of four 12 year old friends growing up in Maine who find out about a dead body – a kid their age named Ray Brower who went missing.  Apparently, he got hit by a train, and the four friends go on a camping trip to see his body.  They have some juvenile and half-formed ideas that they'll get their pictures in the paper and be heroes, but the story is mostly about their relationships, problems, and the journey. 

And it's an incredible story if you were once a boy and appreciate a somewhat nostalgic setting.  Something about it just resonates – the friendships, the thoughts and ideas, the quest – and makes for a very compelling story.  Of course, there's the language, which is beyond coarse (and a stupid "Chico" story that I didn't quite follow how it was necessary to the larger story – probably just tacked in to add length).  But I remember how boys are, and I might have deserved having my mouth washed out on a few occasions.  But I'd guess somewhere around 95% of the foul language could have been cut and still gotten the message across.  Stephen King would no doubt disagree, but he and I can disagree on that point.

Still, if you can overlook that, it's a darn good story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The price of progress?

(I haven't posted much over the last several months because I've been so busy! If you're a personal friend, you know why. But I'm going to try posting regularly again, and this is one I've had written for a couple of years and rewritten numerous times. It's not perfect, but it's already been waiting too long, so...)

Evolution isn't something I've spent a lot of time studying.  I thoroughly enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel – which touches on it to some degree – but honestly, it's a topic that makes me a little uneasy.  As a religious person who enjoys science, I can't deny that the two often seem to be at odds.  But while there are things I can't fully reconcile, the condescending attitude most science writers use toward religion bothers me, and it does nothing to further constructive discussion.

That's where Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a little different.  Not only does he not bash religion, but he frequently quotes scriptures when explaining ideas.  This is not to say that he has written a religious book or that he ignores science in favor of a "creationism" viewpoint, however – it's still a science book, it just doesn't bash the religious viewpoint.  The first half is essentially an overview of the prevailing theories of evolution since our paths diverged from primates, but with a focus on the evolution of the human body.  Lieberman discusses how things like walking upright and head shape and speech likely evolved and why, and what advantages each conferred.  He explains what the earliest humans may have been like and why they may have made the leap to agriculture – and the agricultural revolution seems to be when many of the present day maladies that afflict us first began.  On the grander scale, famines and epidemic diseases all seem to have their roots in the changes that began once agriculture allowed for larger communities and a different lifestyle than our bodies were evolved for.  But the second half of the book looks at some of the more specific health challenges that have been caused by these "evolutionary mismatches," such as Type 2 diabetes, cavities, and flat feet, and how they affect us today.

Basically, the premise is that even though people today are living longer lives than in the past, we aren't necessarily healthier than hunter/gatherers were.  Lieberman believes it is important to look at our bodies from an evolutionary viewpoint in order to understand why we suffer from diseases that didn't plague our ancient ancestors – and the reason isn't always simply because of age.

Honestly, I found the book to be clear and well-explained.  Lieberman makes sense of an oftentimes murky and contentious topic and explains the background behind the current beliefs about evolution.  And it makes a lot of sense, both as he explains evolution and how it affects our bodies given the world we live in today.  It's not a perfect book: Lieberman has a tendency to be repetitive and pessimistic, and occasionally seems to make overstatements.  But on the whole I thought it was a worthwhile (if sometimes long) read. 

As for reconciling religion and science, I have faith that someday it will all make sense and that much hasn't yet been 'revealed.'  We may find that our understanding of the Creation story in The Bible is incomplete or not entirely accurate, and I am certain that our scientific knowledge will continue to evolve, bringing us closer to the truth.  In the meantime, I'll hold on to my faith in both religion and science.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

My eyes were bigger than my stomach

If there's one thing I LOVE, it's baked good that are sweet - things like cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, and my list could go on and on.  And to use a saying from my mom, when it comes to cookies and such, my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach (which means I sometimes eat too many).  It's the same with books; I want to read them all - well, just the 'sweet ones' (the kind I like to read), of course!  But what happens when I combine the two - cookbooks for sweets?

I recently received from bloggingforbooks a copy of George Greenstein's A Jewish Baker's Pastry Secrets: Recipes from a New York Baking Legend for Strudel, Stollen, Danishes, Puff Pastry, and More.  My time is limited but I enjoy baking when possible, and this seemed exactly like the kind of book for my sweet tooth.  The chapters cover such pastry staples as bundt, babka, strudel, puff pastries, and danishes (along with others I'd never heard of).  The book itself is rather basic - no pictures, just recipes - but it's loaded with delicious recipes and variations on each of the pastries.

But, this book is not for beginners.  Each chapter begins with a "master recipe" and then follows with several recipes which use that dough.  Some of the recipes - the ones I became most interested in - use more than one of them!  Many of the pages have a "baker's secret" box, giving additional tips and tricks to make your pastries look more professional and taste even better.  Plus, sometimes the short backstory on some of the recipes can be enough to make your mouth water.

Unfortunately for me, however, I'm not that good at baking just yet.  Not only are my skills lacking, but I lack the time right now to put into such recipes.  No matter how good they sound, until my current responsibilities change I'll have to content myself with visits to the bakery.  But the book will still be on my shelf when I do have more time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Duty and a pile of coconuts

I've enjoyed a number of books about the great and not-so-great explorers who ventured into the unknown.  While there's certainly a romantic idea of being the first to see new lands and bring back great discoveries, more often than not the intrepid explorers faced dangers and incredible hardship in inhospitable places, and some were never heard from again.  For me, any thought of exploration kinda loses it's allure when the food runs out!  Even when expeditions were successful, the explorers didn't always return to fame and glory, but at least some got to sail in beautiful places like the south Pacific.  And I remember hearing in several of these books about "the mutiny on the Bounty."

While I was reading The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander, I was surprised that no one I mentioned it to had heard of it.  I remember seeing a book about it years ago and I know several movies have been made over the years, but apparently it's not one of those bits of trivia most bother to remember.  In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh sailed the Bounty, with its crew of 46, to the beautiful island of Tahiti.  He'd been there before with Captain James Cook, but now his goal was commerce: he was to obtain breadfruit plants to start plantations in the West Indies.  Bligh was a conscientious captain who looked out for the health and welfare of his men, even while insisting upon order.  Unfortunately, a combination of combustible personalities, the beauty of Tahiti and its women, and a pile of stolen coconuts led to a mutiny that left Bligh and 18 of the sailors abandoned on the rough seas in a very small boat.  It was so heavily loaded that even small waves broke over the sides, and it seemed a certain death sentence.

But Bligh managed to sail this tiny boat and crew for 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 land miles) through violent storms and open ocean (with almost no food!) to a safe harbor.  Even more incredible was that only one man died, and that was in a clash with unfriendly natives.  News of this amazing feat and the eventual court martial of most of the mutineers who were apprehended a few years later in Tahiti, was talked about for decades.  Some were hanged for their crimes, but Fletcher Christian, the one who led the mutiny, was never seen again.

But the story doesn't end there.  With savvy legal help, two of the mutineers managed to get pardons from His Royal Majesty, and several of the families involved worked hard to change the narrative of the incident.  Bligh's temper and salty language – particularly over the stolen coconuts – was soon blamed for inciting the mutiny.  But Caroline Alexander sorts through the facts and weaves a surprisingly interesting tale of the challenges of living on a small ship in a big ocean – and even tells what happened to Christian.  And it's a very detailed story, with so much information that I found it slow reading in the beginning.  Before long, however, I was caught up in it and couldn't put it down.  She even tells where Christian and the others ended up, and what became of the community they established.  The maps and illustrations were great to help follow the story, but I wished it had included a list of the 46 men on the ship and their positions at the beginning, since it was hard to tell them all apart.  The extensive detail and backstory might put some readers off, but in spite of a slow start it turned out to be a great summer read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The end of the world is fun

Fun to read about, that is.  (And no, I'm not talking about the Book of Revelations.)  People in the publishing industry have been saying dystopian books have run their course and we're moving on to realism  the contemporary kind of realism of John Green (not me, of course) who writes of nerds and cancer.  Perhaps, although every once in a while I run across a dystopia that falls in the "guilty pleasures" category, such as The Living by Matt De La Peña.  (If you were paying attention you downloaded a free audio version of it a few weeks ago.)

Shy, a Mexican-American kid from a small border-town near San Diego, is working on a cruise ship and earning good money. He's still dealing with his grandmother's recent death from Romero's Disease when a drunken guest approaches him near the railing.  They talk for a few moments, but before Shy knows what's going on, the man jumps overboard. Shy tried to hold on to his sleeve, but the man seemed intent on ending his life. But on the next cruise, a mysterious man in a suit wants to know exactly what the guy said to Shy before he jumped. But none of that matters when the ship is hit by a huge tsunami and he's fighting for his life... or does it?

Don't get me wrong: I had some problems with this book. First, the story is very predictable  it was hard NOT to see where it was headed almost from the beginning. Second, the profanity is pretty bad (and really stands out in the audio version). Plus, it drags when Shy and Addy  the snotty rich blonde girl (of course, you knew there had to be one)  are adrift on a raft, fending off sharks and trying to survive. And yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't stop listening. It's heavily plot-driven but the action kept me hooked.  Surprisingly, the characters are mostly well-developed and likeable. de la Pena is a pretty good storyteller.

In fact, when I saw an advance copy of book 2, The Hunted, on Amazon Vine, I jumped on it.  And in the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I'll only say that Shy and his friends finally reach Los Angeles and now face a city that has descended into chaos.  The government has walled off California and the people have set up zones to prevent the spread of thieves and disease. It wasn't as good as the first book even though it was less predictable (in some ways), but still a fun read. Some of the characters (Carmen, especially) seem less well-developed than in the first (she's almost a caricature), and aren't as likeable, but the 'dystopian' aspect of the series comes through more here than in the first one. It was still enough fun that I breezed through it in a few days.

So, if the end of the world is still fun for you, give Matt De La Peña a try.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Praying for rain

Southern California, where I live, has been suffering through a prolonged drought.  We've been asked to cut back on our water consumption, rates from the water company have been rising, people are converting lawns to ugly but "tolerant" landscapes, and even many religious leaders have called for fasting and prayer for an end to the drought.  Yet, in the years I've lived here I've also seen the rain coming down in buckets for days or even weeks on end.  I've had the pool filled to overflowing with rain and the backyard flooded, and seen torrents rushing in the gutters and filling intersections.  The skies can be very fickle.

Water is an essential element for humans.  Too much or too little can be devastating, but when it's just right we all get along happily.  But a book about rain?  What would you write about?  Cynthia Barnett found exactly what to write about in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, a fascinating look at the effects of rain on the landscape, civilization and societies, and our culture.  She starts at the beginning of the planet, when the rains filled the oceans and compares Earth's history with that of Venus and Mars.  She talks about our efforts to live with it, including the invention of the rain coat  the mackintosh  in Scotland, and how Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are notoriously leaky.  Thomas Jefferson tried to measure the rain at Monticello, but unfortunately built his home atop a hill and far from the sources of water down in the valleys.  Mankind has also tried to control the rain  everything from rain dances to cloud seeding and even burning witches who supposedly had meteorological influence.  Villages in India extract the scent of rain (which is different depending upon the soils where you live and other factors) and bottle it.  Rain has even seeped into our culture, becoming part of art, literature, and music.

Barnett has a wonderful voice in her writing - other reviewers have called it "lyrical"  that makes this a pleasant read.  I wondered how such a seemingly mundane topic could be made to fill a book, but it didn't take me long to be sucked into it and unable to put it down (the chapter on biblical floods and praying for rain was probably the 'driest' for me yes, pun intended).  I was even surprised to see a favorite song, "How Soon Is Now" by the Smiths, be discussed in it  Morrissey is from rainy Manchester and he's used a Bo Didley "rain riff" to evoke the drenched streets of his home (or something like that  I'm not musically intelligent enough to have understood it quite as well as I wish I had).  But I really enjoyed this book  even had to be on guard from my father-in-law who tried to borrow it after reading a few pages.  (I rec'd this book from the bloggingforbooks program.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Where to sleep?

What did you worry about in 5th grade?  Homework and grades?  Friends?  What others thought about you?  Imagine being homeless at that age and worrying about where you would spend the night or what you would eat, or where you would take a shower or wash your clothes?  What if your friends started to complain that you smelled bad, or that your hair looked greasy?  How would you even do your homework when you have to spend the evening looking for a place to stay?

Before she died, eleven year-old Ari's mother wanted two things for her: that she get into the middle school for gifted students, and that she and her brother, Gage, stay together.  But when Gage's run-ins with their guardian, Janna, get worse, he moves out – and Ari chooses to stay with him.  The problem is that Gage doesn't actually have an apartment.  He's 19 but is having trouble getting a job because he doesn't have an address.  Instead, they end up 'couch surfing' at various friend's places, like Gage's girlfriend Chloe (and her roommates), or being snuck into a shelter where neither of them are the right age.  They even end up spending a night in a rented storage garage and in Chloe's car.  But it's hard to get homework done when you're moving back and forth every night, and Ari's grades are slipping and she's no longer at the top of her class.  Worst of all is that she's too afraid to say anything to her friends, and she worries that her clothes aren't clean and that she sometimes smells bad.  The dream of going to Carter seems to be slipping away from her.

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a very well-written and heartfelt book, but I'll be honest: it made me very uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable through the first half, that I didn't enjoy reading it.  It's written for middle-grade kids and shows a side of life most will (thankfully!) never see but does it in a good way – I don't think parents need worry about anything inappropriate or the way it ends.  But it really highlights some of the challenges of normal things like school under such hardships.  It's not preachy but it shows other homeless people in a very sympathetic light (without touching on causes of homelessness like mental illness and addiction).  By the end I really liked the book a lot, but it was still an uncomfortable read.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The world's biggest stage

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Back to the Future" is when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the president is in the future.  When Marty answers "Ronald Reagan!," Doc laughs and asks incredulously, "The actor?!?"  And it's funny because we seldom associate actors with being deep thinkers – at least not the kind of thinkers we'd want to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But Ronald Reagan was an actor in the beginning.  Actually, before that he was a radio sportscaster who then landed some roles in Hollywood, even becoming a rising star until World War II came along.  He tried to enlist but his eyesight was so poor that he wasn't allowed in a combat role, but his solid good looks were a natural fit for the government training and 'propaganda' films.  And when the plum movie roles dried up after the war, he found work in some less serious films such as "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he co-starred with a chimpanzee.  It's no wonder Doc Brown was dismissive.

In Reagan: The Life, H. W. Brands treats us to a fairly detailed (700+ pages) biography of the 40th President of the United States.  He covers his early years with an alcoholic father, his college foray into acting, and his desire for an ever-larger stage from which to perform.  When his Hollywood career stalled, he became the unlikely spokesman for corporate America on television's General Electric Theater where he honed his public speaking skills.  His political career began as union leader for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), following which he was elected California's governor.

But his presidency is the focus and bulk of this book, beginning around page 200 and consuming the next 500.  Brands covers it meticulously – almost to the level of minutiae – and frequently compares his impact with FDR's, Reagan's early hero.  I was a teenager during the early Reagan years, and saw him as restoring pride and confidence in America at a time when both were at historic lows.  Yet, I knew not everyone saw him as positively as I did: the editor of my high school newspaper went out of his way to criticize Reagan (I wonder how many high school newspapers were so overtly political?).  Later, I was out of the country (and out of touch with politics) during the final years when Iran-Contra and much of the negotiations with Gorbachev happened, so that was insightful to me.  And while Brands avoids 'falling in love with his subject,' as some biographers do, it's still a fairly friendly bio.  He frames Iran-Contra as Reagan's effort to bring hostages home and Nancy's reliance on astrologers as a possibly over-protective impulse after the assassination attempt, but in other places he is less than flattering and perhaps more objective.  That's probably how it should be, but if I had a complaint it's that the book sometimes feels passionless.

There will certainly be some on the far right who feel it's not praising enough, and some on the far left who feel it's not critical enough, but I found it to be an informative and entertaining read.  I've read a couple of books by his speechwriters – one was good but too patronizing and another too presumptuous.  I've read great books about Reagan's handling of the air traffic controller's strike and his near-assassination, and even one about a great speech he gave.  But Brand's bio does a good job of approaching scholarly while remaining readable.  I wish it had covered his pre-presidential life in more depth, but I guess that's worthy of a separate book or two.  For those primarily interested in his presidency, however, this one should please most readers.  (I received a free book from the publisher.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Taylor's mission call

* I just have to explain his initial reaction: he was kind of hoping to go somewhere in the U.S.  He really is very excited.