Monday, November 8, 2010

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

There's a reason books win awards. With the exception of one Pulitzer Prize winning book*, I think they are far superior to your average best selling novel. Tinkers, by Paul Harding, is no exception. This winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize is an under 200-page, $5.99 paperback gem that will make any careful reader slow down and ponder life.

George is dying. Tinkers compiles his thoughts and memories during the eight days before his death. The language is lyrical and, therefore, quite the opposite kind of book that won the same prize in 2009. The reader must think to read this; it is a short but challenging exercise for the mind and the soul. The writing grabbed me so fiercely that often I lingered on one page for a many minutes before feeling I could turn the page.

As George wrestles with the last of his life, he has some sentimental moments:

"When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart. When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay."

And as death looms, George has some very honest moments:

"...I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else's frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandcildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they every know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world..."

It was interesting to read interviews with Harding, who studied under Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her fingerprints are all over his writing. He also wrote portions the novel (his first, by the way), in an unusual manner. This kind of writing talent astonishes me, and I'm grateful that I get to reap the benefits of such a gift. For $5.99, you should, too.

*Disclosure: I am embarrassed to say that I have an exception to my Pulitzer-Prize-books-are-some-of-the-best rule. This summer I read this book, which won the coveted award in 2008. I hated it. I tried hard to make myself like it, but I just couldn't. You won't see a review on it here because I have nothing good to say about it. If you read it and have something nice to say, please let me know what was good about it so that I can figure out what is wrong with me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Summer Reading Highlights

I hope the lazy days of summer found you surrounded by books. Here are summaries of some great ones I read during those hot months.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson - This one gets five, no make it ten, stars. A gorgeously constructed companion to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home is the story of a wayward son who cautiously attempts reconciliation with the family he left decades earlier. The writing is just breathtakingly beautiful, and the plot is one that is easily grasped. Home addresses forgiveness, judgement, prejudice, history, and religion, but the overarching theme is that of grace withheld. My God-phobic friends will enjoy this, despite the repeated religious references. Read it, and search your soul for the person from whom you are withholding grace. This one had a profound impact on me.

The Power of One, by Bruce Courtenay- My family has been raving about this movie for over ten years, so when I saw it in the Classics section of my used bookstore, I grabbed it. The Power of One is set in South Africa in the 1940's. It attacks prejudice head-on and shows how just one person can make an enormous difference in the midst of cultural practices that seems insurmountable. The book was significantly better than the movie, but the music in the movie was so good that it is worth seeing the movie as well.

Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay- This has spent some time on the New York Times' Bestseller List, and after reading it, I know why. The writing is, well, marginal. However, the story is one that needs to be read. Sarah's Key tells the story of the persecution of Jews in Paris, focusing on the raid in which Paris police ripped Jewish families from their homes, separated parents from their children, and sent them all off to concentration camps. This historical event is one that is not well known, but should be.

Lit, A Memoir, by Mary Karr - This one knocked my reading glasses off. Mary Karr's retelling of her journey into alcoholism, divorce, and motherhood is in astonishing account of self-reflection. Her writing is superb, and it should be; she is an award winning poet. I loved Glass Castle, but this was so much better. It is not a pretty or clean story. It is a look into someone who assess her life with brutal honesty, something that we don't see very much in our culture. The story becomes even more beautiful as she describes how her life is turned around. I highly recommend this one.

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell - It's a long story as to how I ended up reading nutrition books this summer. Suffice it to say that this one was the best of the stack. The China Study is the compilation of one man's work over an entire career that shows how a vegan diet is the very best way for humans to eat. It had such an impact on me that I am now eating and cooking only plants. Many of my extended family members read it and have followed in my vegetable-loving footsteps. I'm not here to try to convince you to walk over to the dark side of vegan, but if you are worried about any kind of health issues, this is the book to read.

More reviews coming soon, I promise.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Civil Thoughts is Guest Posting... The topic? Gender bias in STEM fields.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Slew of Short and Simple Summaries

I'm behind on sharing my book thoughts. Very behind. Because I don't want to hold back on the good reads I've recently found, I'm going to share my recent book thoughts simply and, as always, civilly.

Push, by Sapphire- This tragic story is about Precious, a young girl born into an unimaginably horrific family. She realizes that the only hope of escaping the horror of that family lies in a single goal: to learn to read. This is an unbelievably sad story, but one that so accurately portrays the essential role that literacy plays in every human being's life. Even though I liked the movie better than the book, the movie spent more time on the horror of the family; the book emphasized the importance of reading. For that reason, read the book first if this plot interests you.

Blame, by Michelle Huneven - Oh, how I adore this one. A recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Blame is the story of a brilliant and accomplished woman who is convicted of killing a mother and daughter while driving drunk. The novel chronicles her time in prison and how she copes with living life as a killer of two innocent people. I thought this book had to have the longest denouement ever, until I realized that I hadn't reached it's climax yet. The high point of the novel is stunning. This is, by far, my favorite so far in 2010.

Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips - Another National Book Critics Circle Award winner, this one is also outstanding. It is the story of a girl, Lark, and her mentally disabled brother, Termite. Lark and Termite are sent to live in West Virginia with their aunt, who raises them. The best part of this novel is that several of the chapters are written from the perspective of Termite. The author wrote those chapters in such a way that the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of a mentally disabled individual. These chapters were remarkable. A very worthwhile read.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave - Breathtaking. The setting is England, and the author writes like the Brit that he is. This voice gave a refreshing tone to the novel, one that I haven't found in a while. The story is about Little Bee, a young woman who escapes her war-torn Nigeria for England. When she arrives, she is immediately imprisoned in a detention center for two years. She is then accidentally released without papers and flees to the only people in England she knows. Those people happen to be the husband and wife who inadvertently met her while vacationing in her war torn land. This one is powerful and will get the wheels of your brain turning on the currently hot topic of immigration reform.

Davita's Harp, by Chaim Potok - Potok is one of my favorites. He writes about the Jewish community in Brooklyn with such intensity. Davita's Harp is no exception. This is a coming of age story in which Davita grows up in the midst of the 1930's and 1940's with a Christian father and a Jewish mother, both of whom have renounced their faith. Davita finds great comfort in the study of the Jewish religion and yet grapples with what she sees as its inconsistencies. This book is remarkable in that the voice of Davita changes throughout the book because Potok constructed it so that the writing parallels her maturation process. Brilliantly done. I love this one. If you are unfamiliar with Potok, familiarize yourself, pronto. Everything he writes is wonderful. Davita's Harp was written in the mid 1980's; I found it at the used bookstore for $2.99. Or, get yourself to the library and read Potok for free.

Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls - Oh, mercy. This is QUITE a story. It is a true story of the author's life with parents who decided to raise their children in a most unconventional way. You will constantly be wondering whether or not these parents were creative, smart, neglectful, narcissistic, or all of the above. The shock of the book is in the story itself. It is an easy read, and I guarantee that you will not be able to put it down. I liked it better than Half Broke Horses, which I read at the beginning of the year and is Walls' prequel, if you will, to Glass Castle.

Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman - I seem to have accidentally fallen into an intense love with Russian novels and, for the life of me, I can't tell you why. Elif Batuman would tell me that my love is rooted in the fact that Russian authors articulate life better than any other ethnicity of authors on the planet. Possessed is a hilarious account of Batuman's experiences with studying Russian literature. If you are drawn to the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, this is a must read for you. However, save it for a quiet, rainy day. This one is not for easy, summer beach reading.

There you have it. Feel free to ask me plot questions if you need more information about whether or not to read one of these. I'm off to do some reading on the beach. Hopefully some longer summaries will return with me.

Happy reading!

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

I first heard about Michael Chabon's writing from his wife while I was on the treadmill at the gym. She was narrating her book, Bad Mother, through my ear pods. Ayelet Waldman's description of her husband's involvement in helping her parent their four children as he churned out novel after novel seemed endearing, if not inspiring. So, off I went to hunt down some Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. That title was not to be found at the used bookstore, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was. It was $2.99. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was Chabon's first book, written at the age of 21.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about Arthur Bechstein as he toys with becoming an adult during a summer break from college. The novel profiles his difficult relationship with his father, who is in the Mafia, and it describes the love he feels for Phlox, who is his girlfriend. As he drenches himself in Phlox's affections, he finds himself questioning his sexuality. The focus of that identity question centers around his friend, who also happens to be named Arthur.

The part of me that is enamored by the talent of the novelist is simply floored at the achievement of this novel written at such a young age. The human part of me wasn't all that enamored. The writing is excellent. The plot is a little eccentric, and because of that, it reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The story is a fairly accurate portrayal of my generation. The picture was not pretty for me, all laid out there in black and white. Oblivious to the enormity of their self-centeredness, Arthur and his friends live in the present without regard for the past or the future. At the beginning of the novel, Arthur says this:

"I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

That vow is made at the beginning of the novel. The vow is not rooted in anything except being momentarily inspired. The inspiration does not propel Arthur to do anything "big". It's that kind of thing that seems to be a repeating theme with my generation; get inspired and then do nothing with the inspiration. Of course, I'm not saying that everyone in my generation fulfills this stereotype, but it's out there. Is this stereotype typical of 22 year olds in all generations? I think not. My grandfather was commanding a World War II Navy ship at that same age. His daughter was financially supporting her husband while he attended college at that same age. His granddaughter (me) was, at 22, not doing anything nearly as magnanimous as commanding a Navy ship or putting someone through college. I might be on to something here. And Michael Chabon might agree with me.

While this wasn't a life-changing, keep-me-up-all-night novel, it fulfilled its purpose. Any time a book causes me to stop and think, it is a good thing. You can be sure that I'll be watching the used bookstore for some more Michael Chabon.

An Open Letter to My Former High School English Teachers Regarding Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dear Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Mohan, and Mrs. Balaban,

How are you doing? Remember me? Maybe not. Nevertheless, I loved having you as my high school English teachers, but I need to bring a matter to your attention. Once I do this, I will feel as if I've made a small, but important, contribution to society.

The matter is regarding the assignment - actually lack thereof - of Crime and Punishment. None of you assigned the reading of this novel in any of the English classes I attended. My question is this: What were you thinking?

Full of intrigue, mystery, murder, prostitution, gender bias, history, and romance, this novel is chock full of the stuff teenagers love. Dostoyevsky is clean in the way he unfolds these dramatic themes. Imagine that! Much cleaner than, say, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which we read and analyzed in detail. As you well know from your many years of teaching literature, the Tolstoy-esque details are absent from Crime and Punishment. The novel is extremely accessible to even the high school level reader.

What is also shocking about the fact that you didn't have us read Crime and Punishment is the sheer volume of moral lessons present in the book. We could have had some really heated debates about whether or not Raskolnikov was forced to commit his crime or not. My classmates would have relished such a discussion!

Truly, though, the most disturbing part of not reading this novel until my 39th year of life is that my brain (and heart) missed the quality of his writing, and specifically, on his masterful use of dialogue to develop plot. Consider, for example, the following:
"Principles! You're always standing on your principles as if they were stilts. You won't move on your own feet."

And then later:
"I didn't kill a human being! I killed a principle!"

What high school student wouldn't love to ponder this statement as he or she is contemplating the future:
"You see, Rodia, it's my considered opinion that all you have to do to make your way in the world is the right thing at the right time."

I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps one of you assumed that the other was going to cover the novel in a later class. Hopefully in the past 25 years you have worked out those kinks and you are not withholding the gift of this novel from your beloved students.

I know you are holding your breath, worried that I'm holding this against you. Really, I'm not. I'm just glad that I can read Crime and Punishment now. It's unfortunate, because I like the book so much that I'd really enjoy writing a paper on it at 39 years of age. However, you can bet your bottom grammar text that I'm going to make sure that all of my friends' English teachers made them read this book, because I wouldn't want them to miss out on what is, by far, one of the greatest novels in existence.

Respectfully yours,


Friday, March 5, 2010

The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

I have been following Susan Wise Bauer and her writing for many years. The Well-Trained Mind is the foundation of the academic pursuits of my four children. The Well-Educated Mind saved my sanity as I coped with leaving my career for motherhood. The four volumes of The Story of the World series have made history one of the most exciting topics in our household.

About seven years ago, I heard Bauer give a lecture and I remember her saying, “History isn’t a subject. It is THE subject.” That sentiment may have led her to embark on the mammoth task of writing the history of the entire world in narrative form. The first volume, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, made me a better teacher of ancient history. I recently finished the second volume of the series, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. I’ve been working on it since November, as I was allowed access to an online copy in exchange for a review on my blog.

Bauer begins her story of medieval times with Constantine’s Christianity and she ends with the Crusades of Christianity. The middle includes the stories of the Romans, the Ostrogoths, and the Vikings, among others. Throughout the 746-page narrative the reader is provided beautifully constructed maps that clearly show the boundaries of the various empires and therefore aid in the understanding of the historical events. The end of each chapter has a vertical timeline that summarizes the major events in the current chapter compared to the events in the previous chapter. This is a gift to the reader, as the timelines show what was occurring in one empire as compared to what was occurring in another empire. Illustrations included also enhance the reading and understanding of the history. The notes at the bottom of many of the pages provide explanatory notes that are delightfully different from the normal history text explanatory notes.

As well done as the technical details are, it is the masterful telling of history as a story that makes the book so remarkable. Bauer explains why the accounts of a certain event may not be as accurate as they should be by listing a historian’s possible bias and how that would affect the accounting of that event. As I read, I felt as if I was sitting in a history class with a most exciting professor. The writing is interesting, informative, and conversational. In the chapter on Japan between 884 and 940 Bauer explains, “Yozei was never imprisoned; his psychopathy took an occasional downward turn (he was reputedly responsible for at least two murders), but he seems to have been allowed to roam through the mountains on horseback, hunting and sleeping out and sometimes appearing without warning at the gates of one or another great landowner, demanding to be let in.” Bauer does not just give textbook-like facts; she provides reasons for why events occurred or men ruled: “This was exactly why he had appointed a pope who was both German and a blood relation.” And whether the medieval times were really funny or Bauer just chose to include all of the humorous events, the book has some downright hilarious parts, in a dark sort of way. Did you know that Maximinus Daia drank poison to kill himself, but it took four agonizingly painful days to die because he ate an enormous last meal right before he swallowed the poison?

I simply cannot fathom how Bauer possibly summarized the events of an entire historical period in a manner that is easy to understand and interesting at the same time. I had a sorry excuse for a history education in public school, and because of my college major, I did not have one single history class during my university studies. This history series has made the facts of my own history less regrettable because I am learning THE subject, and it is THE subject that helps me to understand not just the past, but also the present.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Everything Matters!, by Ron Currie, Jr.

This week I read The Total Mom Makeover for the second time because the promise of this mom being "made over" is just too tempting to resist since it didn't work the first time around (and no, not that kind of makeover). Hannah Keeley, the author who has now told me how to have The Total Mom Makeover twice, says this: “I have spent many hours lying awake at night wondering how I would get the kids evacuated if a huge meteor ever struck the earth…Irrational? Of course it is. But that does not make the threats feel any less real.” The real possibility of a meteor obliterating mankind is exactly what Ron Currie, Jr. addresses in Everything Matters!. Read this novel and you’ll be contacting The Total Mom Makeover guru to ask if she’ll share her Meteor-Hitting-the-Earth-Evacuation-Plan when she writes her next book.

Everything Matters! is a story about Junior. A name so nondescript hints to the reader that this will be no ordinary book. Junior learns the date that the world is going to be destroyed by a meteor while in his mother’s womb. He lives his life with a “voice” that gives him vital information about his life, the lives of his loved ones, and the impending doom of the earth. This voice also provides inside information that helps him understand that he is not crazy; the world really is going to be blown to pieces when he is 36 years old. The government eventually realizes that the meteor is on its way and they use Junior to help them come up with a solution to the problem, which involves escaping Earth. When the problem of the meteor is announced, many people don’t believe it is going to happen. While dealing with a problem of this magnitude, Junior deals with an alcoholic mother, the cancer of his father, the mental disability of his baseball star brother, and the intense love he has for his one and only girlfriend, Amy.

I know, I know. You are thinking that this plot belongs on the science fiction channel and you want no part of it. Think again.

I liked this book. While the reading is not complicated, the issue it explores is important and profound. Currie contrasts the mundane with the ordinary to make the point of the novel; when death is impending, we still have to deal with everyday life. Everything does matter because our time is limited. The tendency in reading this book is to brush it off as fantasy, science fiction, or just a story that does not apply to us. But it is not really all that far removed from what every human being faces every single day. Each day and hour and minute we are closer to death. The only difference between Junior and us is that we don’t know the date or time. We know we are going to die. But do we believe it? Do we live like death is a sure thing? Do we live as if we are dying? In general, I think most of us live like we are going to live forever. Consider one of Junior's thoughts: “As I’m paying I wonder at how we cling so relentlessly to the little conventions like commerce, as though they can save us. What’s the point of tallying up the total expense of my avocados and twelve-grain bread, with the end just over a year away? The point, please, of this dutiful exchange of goods and currency? People all over the world are still giving their homes a fresh coat of paint and making weekly deposits into retirements accounts. Having babies at a record pace. God help us.” In Everything Matters! the people of the world know that the world is going to end, and yet they don’t act as if they believe it. The knowledge of the day they will die does not change the way they live.

I have similar knowledge. I know I am going to die one day. But do I live as I believe that? The book did not instill a spirit of fear, but it did help me to pause and reflect on just what is important in my life. Just how differently would I act if I knew my life would end in five years, in one year, in one day, or in the next hour? It is a sobering question to ask oneself. The question brought to mind this quote from Jonathan Edwards: “Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.” May this thought affect change in the way I live my life, and may it affect change in yours as well.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Joshua Ferris on Negative Reviews of The Unnamed

Thanks, Abby, for this link. It is Joshua Ferris' response to the less than favorable reviews he has been getting on The Unnamed, including The New York Times review that I referenced here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Short History of Women: A Novel, by Kate Walbert

I am supposed to like this novel. I am a woman, for one thing. I am a woman living in modern times, for another. I am a reader that prefers harder-to-read historical fiction over the ever-so-popular vampire books. I should like this book. I didn't.

A Short History of Women: A Novel looks at several women as the feminist movement evolved over the last century. Dorothy Townsend starves herself to death (literally) for women's suffrage. The women in her family are then portrayed in separate chapters as the author shows how they cope with being a woman in their own era. She does not do this chronologically, but jumps from the early 1900's to 2004 and then to the 1950's and then back to the early 1900's. This jumping, combined with the fact that Walbert gives the women extremely similar names, makes it difficult to keep track of whose story she is telling. It is confusing.

I'm all about persevering through hard books. After all, I kept a running list of all of the names in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy captivated me from the first page. A Short History of Women starts out with Dorothy Townsend (the suffragist) starving herself on purpose and leaving her children parent-less because "there was nothing else" she could do. This scene was strangely not captivating or motivating to me. I had to force myself to keep reading and I certainly felt no need to take notes.

I struggle with who I am supposed to be. Is it wife? Is it mother? Is it career woman? Is it housekeeper? Should I be outspoken? Should I be quiet? Should I like football? Should I stick to knitting? Am I a feminist? Am I not a feminist? Most days I think I am supposed to be all of the above, at the same time. Mentally, that's a rough place to be. I was hoping that this book would address the fact that our culture expects more from women while much of the culture still sees women as less. Ironic, isn't it? I'm on a quest to find a novel that addresses this irony well. If I don't find that novel, I'll just have a chat with my mother, who balanced all of these issues better than anyone else I know. And if remembering that fact was the only reason I read this book, the read was worth it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

Nearly 20 years ago I experienced the Sunday edition of The New York Times for the first time. I will never forget it. The primary cover story was about the Supreme Court and the Opinion section ran a Peggy Noonan column. While my consistency of reading The Times has ebbed and flowed with the duties of life, my enthusiasm for the publication has never waned. When I have the time, I always find the Book Review section first. I am awestruck with the reviewers, and have put them on a pedestal with the understanding that I would never be fit to ask them the time of day, let alone disagree with one of their reviews. They are, after all, the ultimate authorities of knowing what makes a book good and what makes a book bad. What follows is a review that goes against every grain of my being for two reasons. The first reason is that I never read a book review on a book that I plan on reviewing. I broke my rule this past Sunday, and I can't say that I regret it. The second reason this review is unnerving is that I'm going to disagree - vehemently - with The Times' review of The Unnamed.

The Unnamed is Joshua Ferris's second book. I am a huge fan of his first novel and couldn't wait to tear into this one. The Unnamed is about Tim Farnsworth, an enormously successful attorney who finds himself with a debilitating condition that causes him to walk. He is unable to keep himself from walking and only stops when his body collapses in complete exhaustion. His walks are described this way: "The path itself was one of peaks and valleys, hot and cold in equal measure, rock, sedge and rush, the coil of barbed wire around a fence post, the wind boom of passing semis, the scantness and the drift." The condition is one that numerous medical professionals are unable to diagnose, despite numerous efforts. They can't even determine if it is an abnormal mental condition that causes him to walk so much. His walking episodes occur randomly, but the ones that occur in the dead of winter throughout the night prove extremely dangerous. He loses some toes and fingers from frostbite, and that is just the beginning. The condition destroys his career, his body, and his mind. It also tests the resolve of his family to remain faithful to him.

Jay McInerney reviewed The Unnamed last Sunday. He didn't like it, though he is a fan of Ferris's first novel. In his review he says, "In fact, it's difficult to believe that The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End came from the same laptop." McInerney doesn't like the fact that this book was so different from Ferris's first. While I would agree that the books are different (this one is dark, the first is hilarious), Ferris beautifully articulates in both novels how people feel when they are dealing with a debilitating illness. He writes about it so well that I can only assume he has watched loved ones deal with similar situations. So, in that regard, the two novels are remarkably similar.

Mr. McInerney says that he does not see the point in The Unnamed: "What does it mean? Tim's affliction might be a metaphor for addiction, for careerism, for any compulsion that drives a man or woman to leave family and community and health behind. A preacher tells Tim near the end of his travels that not everything can be explained by reason - which seems like a mundane lesson for such a grueling course of study." I do not think this book was written primarily as a metaphor for those things at all. The point of the book was to give readers a close look at marriage.

Jane, Tim's wife, tirelessly tries to help him find a cure for his unnamed syndrome. Once it becomes clear that a cure will not be found, she does everything possible to help him cope with the condition so that he stays safe; "She was his support staff and counsel." At great personal cost, she becomes a slave to Tim's condition. Regarding Jane, the narrator tells the reader that, "Anger with God was a tired and useless emotion, anger with God was so terrestrial and neutering. She thought she had arrived at a peaceful negotiation but in fact it was only a dormancy and when her anger at God met her at the end of the drive she was exhausted." Jane is a main character in the book, and my insides were ripped to painful shreds as I watched her choose to sit and watch her husband walk. She struggles with wanting an easier life. Even when Tim tells her to leave and move on, she tries but simply cannot. She worries for Tim, not out of obligation, but out of a self-sacrificial love that is not generally found in the Hollywood story lines that seem to have defined love in our culture.

If Mr. McInerney needs a metaphor, I could read one into this novel. We are all walking, aren't we? Toward something, away from something, but we are all figuratively walking. Ultimately, this book is about marriage (and maybe Mr. McInerney missed this because he isn't married). While the novel is very dark and lacks redemption, it is a thought-provoking and insightful look at how a marriage survives "in sickness" and " for worse". It is a beautifully painted picture of love that goes beyond romance or even duty. If you read it, you'll ask yourself if you have Jane's resolve. You'll ask yourself if you have ever seen someone love like Jane loves. And when you read the following passage from The Unnamed, you may stop and wonder just what marriage is all about.

"They say it takes a long time to really get to know somebody. They say a good marriage requires work. They say it's important to change alongside your partner to avoid growing apart. They talk about patience, sacrifice, compromise, tolerance. It seems the goal of these bearers of conventional wisdom is to get back to zero. They would have you underwater, tethered by chains to the bow of a ship full of treasure now sunk, struggling to free yourself to make it to the surface. With luck he will free himself, too, and then you can bob along together, scanning the horizon for some hint of land. They say boredom sets in, passion dissipates, idiosyncrasies start to grate, and the same problems repeat themselves. Why do you do it? Security, family, companionship. Ideally you do it for love. There's something they don't elaborate on. They just say the word and you're supposed to know what it means, and after twenty years of marriage, you are held up as exemplars of that simple foundation, love, upon which (with sweeping arms) all this is built. But don't let appearances fool you. That couple with twenty years still fights, they still go to bed angry, they still let days pass without --
The trouble with these cheap bromides, she thought, is that they don't capture the half of it."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School before reading Columbine: Two boys, named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed a bunch of kids because they were being picked on at school and they were angry about it. They wore trench coats and dressed kind of Goth, and because of that, they were picked on and decided to take revenge.

My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School after Columbine: The only correct part of the above summary is that the boys’ names were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

If you think you know what happened that Tuesday morning in April, 1999, think again. Columbine is an immensely important book, whether you are a parent, an educator, a citizen, or a human being. Dave Cullen is a journalist who began reporting at Columbine High School on the day of the tragedy, and continued to cover the story for the next ten years. This book is the culmination of his meticulous research. While it is tragic that this book had to be written, I am so glad that it was. I never sensed that Cullen was trying to profit financially from the tragedy. Should you choose to read it, you’ll understand immediately that he had one goal in mind: to get the story straight.

Cullen begins the book by setting the scene of the school’s event in the three days preceding the attacks. After the attacks, he explains what is happening with the killers, the victims, their families, the churches, the media, and the law enforcement. He writes in a steady stream of changing focus. At first, I considered this a choppy way to present the facts. I soon realized that this is the only way to present the story; this event was full of so much chaos within the lives of so many individuals that the structure of the book mimics the state of the community in the hours and days and years following the massacres. It also mimics, I would guess, the number of different aspects that Cullen had to address as he covered the story. That said, the book is easy to read, and yet difficult to process. Cullen comprehensively dispels the myths surrounding the killings. And the myths are stunningly abundant. He explains how those myths occurred and why they are not accurate assessments of the facts surrounding the case.

Cullen investigates the motive of Eric and Dylan incredibly well. He was fortunate to spend extensive time with Dwayne Fuselier, an FBI Agent who tirelessly searched for an answer to why the two young men did what they did. The findings are astonishing. He subtly shows incredible compassion for the victims and their families, and while I did not sense compassion for Eric and Dylan, he seemed to handle the revealing of their motive as objectively as a caring human possibly could.

The other stunning thing to read about in Columbine is the cover up that occurred within local law enforcement. Cullen repeatedly shows that the reason the myths surrounding the event have been perpetuated is because the report on the killings did not come out for a year afterwards. Once the facts were released, the public had lost interest and the assumptions that were initially made stuck, even though the report showed that the majority of those assumptions were inaccurate. Cullen also explains that there are facts the public will never know about the behavior of Harris and Klebold because records were destroyed. In another brilliant show of reporting, Cullen explains that, while the detective work regarding the evidence at the school was well done, there were mistakes made that were simply unconscionable. These mistakes, combined with the reaction of the Evangelical Christian community in the aftermath, are all parts of the tragedy about which I was unaware until I read this book.

In his quest to tell the whole story of Columbine, I think Cullen shows that on many levels, there was a great failure to do one thing: listen. Parents weren’t listening to children. Children weren’t listening to parents. Law enforcement wasn’t listening to facts that perhaps could have caught this crime before it occurred. Members of the media weren’t listening to facts. The public wasn’t listening to the media. Many of the Christians weren’t listening to the Bible. And, as any great book does, this one caused me to ask myself an important question about the way I live my life: Do I listen? I hear, but do I really and truly listen? Am I listening to my children? Do I listen to the media? Am I listening to facts? Or am I simply making conclusions based on the preconceived notions that are centered on what I am halfway hearing? I need to listen.

Thank you, Mr. Cullen. I hope more people take up your book and listen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Some of the best stories are in books. Some never make it to the paper pages; they are lived out on the pages of our lives. The best writers find the words to tell the stories that end up in books. Some of us are not the best writers, and so, our stories will remain lived out on the pages of life. But that doesn't mean that these stories aren't worthy to tell.

A decade ago at this very moment (Kazakhstan time), I began to live a really great story. I became a mother for the first time and my oldest daughter became a daughter for the first time. We didn't meet each other in the usual way. We weren't at a hospital. We weren't even in a room with a birth mother and a social worker. We were in a country that most people have never heard of. We were united in an orphanage, full of hundreds of parentless children living in conditions less than favorable. Right there, in the most dire of conditions, began this beautiful story, a story that the best of fiction writers could not write. This child, my daughter, was handed to me. Dressed in a bright yellow sweatshirt and skin covered in scabies, she was seven months old when I met her. At all of ten pounds, she was the size of a newborn though not the age of one. As I set eyes on her for the first time, I was, well, completely overcome. I don't have the words to tell you just how. They don't exist. I wonder what she was thinking as she reached out for my face. I wish I knew.

We survived our six weeks together in Kazakhstan. It was quite the adventure. The adventure is a story in itself, one that some say has been told enough. She had been in Kazakhstan for nine months by the time we left, and while she acclimated to the conditions, her sick little body was giving the signals that it was ready to get away for a while, perhaps forever. By the time we left, I would have done anything for that child.

We arrived home, to throngs of family and friends who doted on her like nothing I'd ever seen. And as we recovered from jet lag and began the long process of reversing the daunting effects of her institutionalization, I threw myself into motherhood like nothing you've ever seen. My friend told me years later that I was a "hobby parent". I had the best of intentions; I was going to be the perfect mother with no mistakes on the agenda.

Of course, as each second passed, I fell more in love with her. I was joyful. Happy. Euphoric. Ecstatic. I had never known love like this. I rejoiced in every move of her finger, in every twitch of her mouth. I swear I watched her so closely that I could see her hair grow. For two and a half years, I did nothing but watch my perfect child and bask in the glory of her being.

And then, life happened. As we all know, life isn't all play. It isn't all fun. I had to get some things done. And so, I realized that I needed to make some changes. Begin a routine. Set some boundaries. Establish some rules. Expect certain behavior. As as I did, my sweet daughter wasn't sure what was happening. She didn't know that life wasn't all play and hugs and laughter when you throw your food off of the high chair. Her initial seven months of life were all about routine and rules and behavior. As she and I tried to get used to a new normal, I quickly learned that I had made a motherload of mistakes.

And as we navigated our new waters, something happened. This child would try to learn the new thing, I would correct her, she would try her best, I would correct her again and so the cycle would go. The poor girl. I was messing up. And each time I messed up, she would forgive me. She would love me even though I wasn't very lovable, even though I was changing the rules on her. This pattern of me changing the rules and her giving me another chance to get it right would continue for some time. A decade, in fact.

I still haven't gotten this mothering thing down. I screw up every day. And when I do, she is right there, ready to forgive, ready to love unconditionally, ready to give me another chance. Wait. Wasn't it my job to teach her unconditional love? Wasn't that what I, the parent, was supposed to do for her, the child? Oh, the surprises life brings. My daughter has taught me what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. She has taught me that I am loved in spite of my failings. She has modeled what I am supposed to be modeling to her. She has given me a decade of the gift called Grace.

And so, as I reflect and cry copious volumes of tears in gratitude and joy, I write this story because tomorrow night we will celebrate a decade together. And as we celebrate, the emotions will keep me from verbalizing just how much she is loved and what a gift she is. A gift completely undeserved by me. Grace.

To those of you who watched the adventure, thanks for being there through it all. And to John and Mom, who were there at the beginning, thanks for walking this road with me. I couldn't have done it without you.

Happy Gotcha Day, CPT. Your mom loves you more than words can say.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Resolved... read the following books in 2010:


Everything Matters, by Ron Currie, Jr….because I promised I would.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, by Jeannette Walls…because it is one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2009.

A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert…because I am immensely interested how women navigate the responsibilities they have faced over time.

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem…because I love books that are set in New York City.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore…because adoption is a primary theme and I’m curious.

Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield…because it is fun to read about a character of whom I am the polar opposite.

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist…because the themes of morality appear to loom large.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel (P.S.)...because I love his wife's writing, I figured I'd check him out.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy...because this guy told me to.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz...because it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years ago.

A Happy Marriage: A Novel, by Rafael Yglesias... because I read about this book in July and have not forgotten about it.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy…because I loved Anna and I didn’t read it in High School.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert...because it is a short classic and it is on my bookshelf.

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien...because I should, even though I don't want to.


The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer…because she is my hero and I get to read it before it comes out as long as I promise to read it and write the review by February 22nd.

The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel…because I’m worried that my generation simply doesn’t get war.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen…because it was at the library and because I think I should.


Herbert Hoover: The American Presidents Series: The 31st President, 1929-1933, by William E. Leuchtenburg...because he was an engineer.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls…because my mother told me to.

Ayn Rand and World She Made, by Anne C. Heller…because my husband is still working on Atlas Shrugged.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch…because I finally listened to my sister-in-law regarding O’Connor’s writing.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin...because everyone loves it.

On Education:

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, by Walter Kirn…because I want to read some books on education this year.

Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, by Rafe Esquith...because this guy is inspiring.

On Writing:

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, by Carol Sklenicka…because I want to read about writing this year.

On Religion:

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N. T. Wright...because I hear it is an easy read .

Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster...because I've not read it and I should have a long time ago.

That's it, so far. I'll be adding to this as the year progresses, but these are my must reads for the year. I'd love to see YOUR lists and hear YOUR recommendations for 2010. Happy reading...