Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Happens in the Bookstore at Night

As anyone who reads a book knows, all bookstores, even the likes of Barnes and Noble, are struggling to redefine themselves and survive in the age of Kindles, iPads and Nooks.  I love reading on paper and on an e-reader.  It depends on the book, the cost and my mood.  While I'm rarely without my Kindle (it is in my phone as well), online browsing for books will never replace the joy of going to The Strand, The Mysterious Bookshop or even Barnes and Noble and browsing through new and old books.

Recently, Jonathan Franzen believes e-books are damaging society. Link to the story here.  If you want a chance to defend "real" books, you can register today for World Book night.  Info here.

One independent shop made this fantastic video of what happens in a bookstore at night.  I'm certain it is real.  Enjoy.  (Thanks to NA for forwarding this to me.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a highly acclaimed, Man Booker winning author, was on the 2010 Man Booker longlist and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  At 551 pages (UK edition), it is a weighty novel that took a lot of work to get through.  After several attempts to get through the book, I can say that I appreciated the writing, the character development, the language and the arch of the novel, but I don't plan to read it again.  It was worth reading but be ready to work.

In 1913, George Sawle brings  his aristocratic college classmate, Cecil Valance, to his modest home.  Sawle is smitten by Valance, as is Sawle's younger sister, Daphne.  On that short visit, Valance, a young poet, composes a short poem about the Sawle's home, "Two Acres."  Valance is killed in the war (World War I).  End section one of the book.  In the next section, Hollinghurst fast-forwards by about fifteen years, regathers certain of the characters and examines where they are in life.  This formula repeats several times.  The touchstone of each section is Valance, his poem and his relationships with those he touched in his truncated life.

Through the novel, Hollinghurst examines memory, what is buried and how it is reshaped.  He also examines the subtleties of class in Britain and what it is to be gay during various periods of the 20th century.  The novel is majestic.  As a reader, it takes a lot of work to engage with Hollinghurst.  For example, the characters reappear in different sections of the book but they are older, their names often change (though multiple marriages) and life's experiences have changed them.  Of course that is how life works but it requires the reader's strict attention to the details. Hollinghurst's writing is engaging.  He captures conversation, especially large groups, and tone beautifully.  While there is no explicit sex, sexual themes are pervasive.

This is not a light, easy read.  If you are up for a relatively rewarding challenge, give Hollinghurst a shot.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard tells the story of the assassination of President James Garfield by a deranged man.  This is a smart, highly readable and tightly focused work of history.  I knew nothing about James Garfield or his assassination.  Millard does a terrific job of shedding light on what happened.

James Garfield was a compromise candidate for the presidency in the election of 1880.  He did not want the job and only emerged as the candidate when the front-runners were deadlocked.  He grew up basically fatherless and dirt poor.  He learned Latin, mathematics and literature.  When he was in Congress, he developed an original proof to the Pythagorean theorem.  Garfield was truly a self-made man.

In the 1880s, there was no concept of security for the president.  Office seekers regularly stopped into the White House to meet with the president (can you imagine that nowadays?).  A deranged man, who believed that he helped put Garfield into office and then needed to eliminate him to save the Republic, shot him in Union Station.  Medical practitioners at the time had not yet accepted Lister's thesis that a lack of sterile procedures caused more deaths than the wounds themselves.  Doctors battled with each other for control over Garfield's care.  The doctors who actually took care of Garfield probed the wound with their unsterilized fingers, infecting the wound and causing the wound to become deadly.  Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the phone, struggled to invent a life saving device to find the bullet and assist the President and find a way to get through to the controlling doctors.

Millard narrates the story beautifully and brings the vivacious personalities to life: Garfield's tenacity and strength, Bell's persistence and drive, the doctors' self-serving need to control Garfield's care and the assassin's psychosis.  The book's focus is not on politics or the shooting itself.  It is about what happened after the President was shot and how the doctors and Bell struggled and battled to save the President.  The book reads like a novel and brings to life a somewhat forgotten president.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Walking on the Moon With Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer is a 2011 non-fiction book that will change how you think about your memory.  If you like Malcolm Gladwell or books that help you see the world a bit differently, I'd add this to your reading list.

Foer, a young reporter, went to report on the ultimate event -- the U.S. Memory Championships.  He met the competitors, learned about their talents and decided to participate in the following year's competition.  He learned the skills, trained and ended up winning the competition.  Through Foer's adventure, he teaches the reader that memory is like most other skills, one which we can be learned.  He explains some of the basic and intricate techniques he was taught.  It is amazing.  By creating absurd images of objects and placing them in a memory palace (a place you know very well, such as a childhood home), with proper training, you can store extensive material.  For example, look at this list:

-pickled garlic
-cottage cheese
-smoked salmon
-six bottles of white wine
-3 pairs of dirty socks
-3 hula hoops
-a snorkel
-a dry ice machine
-write an email to Sophia

Last Thursday, I memorized the list above based on the techniques in the book and I still remember it crisply.  It is amazing!  I've tried this out on four subjects so far and each one has had equal success.

The book reads as if it is a long New Yorker article: well written, highly entertaining and beautifully executed. It was a great book.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2012 Tournament of Books

March Madness is coming!!  The Tournament of Books announced its competitors for the 2012 Tournament of Books.  For those who don't recall, the Tournament (in its eighth year) is the book lover's answer to the NCAA tournament.  In March, the contenders below will be bracketed and compete for the Rooster Award.  Exciting stuff!!

Of this year's contenders, I've read six of the books and know a fair amount about five others.  Plenty to read in the coming weeks.

The selection committee announced that this year they wanted more diversity.  They've accomplished that.  There are some serious 2011 heavyweights in the group below.  The Man Booker prize winning Julian Barnes is included.  Two other Man Booker contenders, deWitt and Hollinghurst, are also included.  The Orange Prize winning newbie Obreht (and one of the favorites of the year) is in the crowd.  The National Book Prize, Ward, winner is listed.  Two of the writers were The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 (Obreht and Russell).  Harbach's entry was one of the most anticipated (and expensive) of the year.  And, of course, there are some literary big hitters, Ondaatje (English Patient), Murakami (beloved by many) and Eugenides (Virgin Suicides).

The Sweet Sixteen are:
Over the few weeks, there's a lot of good stuff to read.  Of course, I'll keep you posted with color commentary.

On a personal note, today marks the beginning of year two of this blog.  Writing this blog and interacting with fellow readers over this last year has been fun and gratifying for me.  The growth of this blog has astounded me.  The number of hits has grown exponentially from a couple of hundred in a month to thousands!  I'm humbled by the depth of the readership and the interest in what I have to say about books.  As always, I appreciate any feedback and look forward to sharing year two with you.  Happy reading!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is remarkable.  This is a non-fiction book from 2010.  I highly recommend it.  (It came highly recommended to me from three readers of this blog.  Thank you, DH, MH and JM).

What makes this book standout is that Skloot ties together a story about race, medicine, medical ethics, science, healthcare and human beings in a narrative that simply flows.  In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  She was a decedent of slaves, an honest and hard working woman, and a mother of very young children.  Unbeknownst to her, Lacks's doctors extracted tissue from her for research.  Her tissue produced the first cells to survive and spawn new cell lines -- the HeLa line of cells.  The HeLa cells have continued to replicate and have been used extensively, for example, in developing the polio vaccine and throughout cancer research.  Neither Lacks nor her family were asked for their consent.  They were never compensated or even recognized for the contribution they made.  While her cells advanced medical research and enriched some companies, the Lacks family could not afford basic healthcare.  

Skloot does a magnificent job of uncovering and telling the story of Henrietta, her family, the doctors and researchers involved and the breakthroughs that they made.  She tells Henrietta's story, the story of the researchers and what they accomplished and, in accessible terms, the story of the advances made by science.  She manages to get close to the Lacks family (in a loving, non-exploitive way) and share their story.  She challenges the reader with ethics questions, some of which still remain open today.  The writing is thoroughly accessible.