Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Books encouraging one to express oneself are often more frustrating than inspiring; afterwards, I often regret reading instead of actually creating, or I slump back into those existential creativity-killing questions such as "But what's the point?" or "Who cares?" Rather than focus on a particular craft, Art & Fear addresses creativity in general and helps deal with some of these questions head-on, freeing the reader to just get on with the creative work. From the introduction:
This is a book about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people - essentially (statistically speaking) there aren't any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once a century or so, good art gets made all the time.

The book seems to talk in the voice of a friendly mentor. It's the kind of book you want to underline several times a page and give to all your art-making friends. Being a fairly slim volume, it won't distract you from your work for long, and you can easily carry a copy with you in your toolkit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Top 12 Favorites from 2009

...that is to say, of the books I read in 2009, these were my favorites, in no particular order. Please read them and report back.
  1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
  2. Human Smoke - Nicholson Baker
  3. Zeitoun - Dave Eggers
  4. Art & Fear - David Bayles and Ted Orland
  5. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow
  6. American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
  7. Feed - M.T. Anderson
  8. City of Refuge - Tom Piazza
  9. Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld
  10. Predictably Irrational - Dan Arielly
  11. The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner
  12. Bright of the Sky - Kay Kenyon

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

I haven't always been a big fan of audiobooks, but I'm starting to see how they can sometimes have real advantages over printed books. Take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. With bits of dialogue like this, from Jim,

"Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn' hear sumf'n. Well, I know what I's gwyne to do: I's gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin,"

I blanched at the thought of ever reading the entire book. Then after hearing some recommendations of the audiobook read by Tom Parker (Grover Gardner), I gave it a try. Parker's voice explored every nook and cranny of each accent, which, in an audiobook, was delightful. I have no idea what Parker's actual voice is like; his default in this case was a warm and personable Arkansas sound, reminiscent of jazz legend Bob Dorough. And, with Parker's help, I fell in love with the story.

Though the book has its flaws (I could've done without Tom Sawyer's intervention towards the end), I came to realize that Huck's voice is what makes it so special, and so much more involving the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While Tom is a trickster, always gleefully gaming the system, Huck doesn't wish to bother anyone; he wants nothing more than to be free. Free of the confines of polite society; free of the clutches of his drunken, abusive father; free of the settled life. It makes perfect sense that he would befriend Jim, who, of course, craves a much more fundamental kind of freedom. Huck eventually has to decide whether he can live outside of society itself, and this is what makes the story so subversive for its time, and for ours: sometimes that's the only way to do the right thing.

Friday, December 11, 2009


by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun is the true story of a successful man, a respected business owner with a devoted wife, three children, a dog, and rental properties all over town. Unfortunately, that town is New Orleans, he's a Syrian-American, and his life is about to change forever.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the kind of guy you like to have around in times of crisis. He's calm, self-assured, and resourceful. When the news comes that Katrina may be more than the standard summer storm, Zeitoun helps his wife pack the kids and dog off to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister; Zeitoun decides to stay to watch over the family home and all the tenants of their rental properties. His wife isn't happy about it, but knows that her husband is as stubborn as he is hard-working. The two are in constant contact via cell phone, as usual. As devastating as the storm is, Zeitoun sees the flood as an opportunity to make use of a secondhand canoe he'd picked up at a yard sale. He paddles around his neighborhood, helping anyone he can and checking on neighbors. With help from other residents, he rescues several elderly people from their homes. And every day he feeds the abandoned dogs in the house across the street.

As Kathy Zeitoun follows the horrific news stories, her calls to Zeitoun get increasingly insistent -- he's got to get out of there, leave town now that the storm has passed. After his cell phone runs out of power he takes his canoe over one of his properties every day at noon to call his family. And it's there, one day, as Zeitoun is about to call his wife, that several military personnel burst in the door and arrest him. He is never given a phone call; as far as his family knows, he is dead.

Dave Eggers writes the story in a subdued, just-the-facts style--no verbal fireworks are needed, of course. I was riveted. A lot of books have been written about the Bush years, and I haven't felt much need to read them; I know what I think about his administration. But, without even touching on anything political, Zeitoun says volumes about the catastrophe of Katrina, of New Orleans, and of our nation's response to a city in crisis.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery
One of the ironies of being intelligent is the realization that intelligence is not always helpful. For Renée, a middle-aged concierge in a Parisian apartment building, intelligence is something best kept hidden away, to be occasionally enjoyed in private, maybe with a good friend. But people expect someone of her background and employment to be boring and obedient, and she does her best to meet their expectations.

Meanwhile, Paloma, a 12-year-old living whose wealthy family lives upstairs in the same building, has decided that, unbeknownst to the silly and superficial people surrounding her, life is meaningless. She has a plan to dramatically end her life on her 13th birthday.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog alternates between the diaries of these two characters, who are both in for a surprise when a mysterious stranger moves into the building. This is a slow-paced book, celebrating these two sparkling souls who hide themselves so well. It is not, however, a book in which nothing happens. Part of the fun is in seeing how these beautiful minds will react when pushed out of their comfort zones. Loved it.

Friday, November 27, 2009


by Scott Westerfeld

Deryn and Alek, the two heroes of Scott Westerfeld's new young-adult steampunk adventure, Leviathan, try very hard to be seen as normal teenage boys. This isn't easy, because Deryn, who longs to fly for the British Army, is a young woman, and Alek is the son of the recently-assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I haven't read a lot of Steampunk--the basic idea is to splice technology from our present (or even future) onto the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and see what that very different culture would have done. In Leviathan's timeline, Darwin not only developed the Theory of Evolution, but also discovered DNA and learned how to manipulate it. So, while Austria's Imperial-Walker-style robots are fun, the real thrills come when you follow Deryn into the British Air Service, which uses Darwinist beasties of all shapes and sizes, whole engineered ecosystems in the sky. Westerfeld's details, both biological and mechanical, make this bizarre alternate history come alive, and Deryn and Alek are smart and lively characters. Though the ending sets you up for a sequel, it's also very satisfying on its own. Highly recommended.

Homer & Langley

by E. L. Doctorow

One of the great benefits of fiction is the ability it gives the reader to slip into the skin of someone else, to temporarily inhabit another soul and body. Even more remarkably, the subject doesn't need to be someone like you, or even someone you'd ever thought you'd be able to relate to. With Homer & Langley, for instance, E.L. Doctorow brings you into the mind of an kind, well-educated man who, by the end of his life, was seen as some sort of monster or freak.

Homer Collyer tells us, in his inimitable voice, that he is one of two brothers, the blind one. We learn how he lost his sight, the world slowly growing darker and less distinct. Despite this, Homer is a vital soul and makes the most of his other senses, learning to navigate using his hearing, his sense of smell, even his sense of air pressure around him. His brother Langley, who takes care of Homer after their parents' death, is an iconoclast, railing against authority figures of all kinds. We see Homer and Langley journey through the 20th century without often leaving their 5th Avenue brownstone. Their family fortune enables them to opt out of the working world, though they remain reluctant to spend much, eventually letting their servants go. It soon becomes clear that Langley is an eccentric, so fiercely independent that he sees no reason to pay utility bills or even the mortgage. He buys newspapers from all over town and debates with Homer about the horrors of the day.

The brothers aren't unfriendly--Homer has a job playing the piano at a silent movie house, the scenes whispered into his ear by a lovely girl he develops deep feelings for; the brothers befriend a gangster charmed by Homer's abilities; they hire a Japanese couple to clean their house in the year leading up to Pearl Harbor; they're adopted by hippies who see them as longhaired counter-culture gurus.

By the end of their lives, the Collyer brothers were famous around New York, and even worldwide, as compulsive hoarders, recluses living amidst tons of their own garbage, never opening the black shutters over their windows. I'm not sure anyone but Doctorow could have made these two human lives so relatable, so tragically beautiful. As extreme as these two brothers were, they bring up basic truths of life: our struggle between independence and community, our tendency to accumulate possessions and detritus over a lifetime, and the eventual loss of everything we hold dear. Homer's story deeply touched me, and also made me want to clean my basement.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Paradise, Piece by Piece

by Molly Peacock

It's easy to think of life as a series of additions: adding knowledge, skills, friendships, a spouse, a home, children. In poet Molly Peacock's memoirs, we're reminded that what's subtracted from our lives - through fate or through choice - can be just as important. Peacock seems to start her life with a frighteningly full plate and gradually learns to choose what she wants to let go of, making her way towards a life that's the right size for her. Of course, as in any life, this is not a simple, sure path.

Peacock's prose is beautiful, and her story, of a creative person finding balance, is inspiring. Though she seems to understand early in her life that she doesn't want children, she says it's a choice one is consistently remaking. Is she cutting herself off from life, or freeing herself? How can the same family be a launchpad for one child and quicksand for another? She has no simple answers, but I very much enjoyed her point(s) of view.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

Usually when I consider posting a book here, my main criterion is whether or not I'd recommend it to friends of mine, and I try to write the review as if I were trying to convince my friend(s) to read the book. In the case of Infinite Jest, I find this very difficult. To be honest, I wouldn't recommend the book to many people. The book is not only extremely long, but extremely unpleasant, full of broken, deformed, addicted, in some cases mentally ill people who do terrible things to each other while having extensive flashbacks to the unspeakable cruelties they've lived through. The plot, what there is of it, doesn't really kick in until about 500 pages in, and doesn't ever fully coalesce, though there are enough intriguing hints and clues that you feel like you WANT it to come together. What's more, the book is peppered with hundreds of endnotes, some of them several pages in length, requiring the reader to constantly flip back and forth, and necessitating a second bookmark. Not exactly a quick read.

Like many people, I had "Infinite Jest" sitting on my bookshelf for years, and kept feeling like I really should read it. Infinite Summer, an online Infinite Jest reading group, was a huge help. Here were people all over the world, many feeling the same combination of dread and anticipation, reading the book at the same time. I'm not sure I could've done it without my support group.

So. Why read it? I'm not sure you should. But if, after all my warnings, you're still intrigued, Infinite Jest certainly does have its rewards. One of Infinite Summer's guides described it as a plea for empathy and sincerity wrapped in a cynical, detached, post-modern disguise. Only by writing such a tough, nasty, over-the-top screed could David Foster Wallace bring in the audience to whom he most wanted to deliver his message of brotherly love, or so goes the theory. I think this rings true. Characters like Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, and Joelle Van Dyne won't soon leave my memory, and, like my very favorite books, they help me see the beauty at the core of the human beings around me, no matter how gnarly their lives may be. It's a brilliant and blinding work of art, and I do recommend taking up David Foster Wallace's challenge, if you feel you can.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

by David Eagleman

What happens after we die? It's one of the most basic questions, and every human culture has come up with answers. Science has its own answer, which, to many of us, seems unsatisfying. Rather than worry about who's right, David Eagleman suggests we explore the idea of the afterlife even further. In Sum, he offers 40 of his own visions of possible afterlives, most of them mutually exclusive. Each is imaginative and thought-provoking, and seem no more more or less plausible than some of those afterlives proposed by philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. I found it beautiful.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


by Dan Simmons

As we saw in the film, "Amadeus," the artistic life can be difficult enough even without having a friendship with one of the most popular creative geniuses in history. In Drood, we meet Wilkie Collins, a successful novelist and friend of Charles Dickens, writing, for us in the 21st century, a chronicle of the bizarre events of the last few years of his and Dickens's lives. Collins is an unreliable narrator if there ever was one; he's addicted to ever-higher doses of laudanum (made by combining opium with ethanol), which he tells himself helps to cure his painful gout. The result is that he's had recurring hallucinations throughout much of his life. These are unpleasant enough when they're clearly only in Collins's head, but we really start to worry when they begin affecting the real world -- does this mean they weren't actually hallucinations to begin with?

The story begins with Dickens relating to Collins a terrible railway accident he's been through: Dickens was sitting with his mistress and her mother when the viaduct the train was going over collapsed, and several rail cars fell to the bottom of the ravine below. Dickens and company were unharmed. Dickens then went to assist any still-living passengers in the wreckage, and on his way down the slope, a very unusual man introduced himself. Drood was his name, he had no nose or eyelids, hissed as he spoke, and his goal among the survivors seemed to be the exact opposite of Dickens's.

All in all, the book felt a little long, and probably could have been edited down a bit. But for those looking for a big, creepy Victorian-era novel, Drood does the trick. Dan Simmons's research is frighteningly thorough, and all the dark details make the book stick in one's mind long after reading.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

by Dan Ariely
It's been pretty well established that human beings are not the calm, rational creatures we'd like to think of ourselves as. What Ariely brings to the discussion is the idea that our irrational decision-making follows predictable (and scientifically testable) patterns. Ariely, a Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, gives an illuminating tour of his experiments in this field. Do people who are sexually aroused make different choices than they do in a "cooler" state? Why do people cheat less when asked to sign an imaginary "honor code"? Why do people act differently when money is involved? Why does an expensive pain reliever work better than the same drug at a lower price? Just seeing how the testing was done is fascinating, and the results made me look differently at my own decision-making.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Bright of the Sky

by Kay Kenyon
For those of you interested in genre, Bright of the Sky feels somewhere in-between SF and Fantasy. Titus Quinn, the main character, comes from a recognizable futuristic Earth, and there's plenty of scientific grounding for the plot. But much of the story takes place in a completely different universe, called the Entire, with its own rules and technology so far removed from ours that they seem like magic. The sentient creatures of the Entire have always been able to see our universe (which they call the Rose) and have based much of their culture upon our own.

When we first meet Titus, he is living a solitary life after losing his wife and child. The three of them somehow broke the bounds of our universe and ended up in the Entire, and Titus, who lost all memory of that time, is the only one who came back to Earth. Now a possible way to bridge the two universes has been discovered, and the Minerva corporation wants to send Titus across to pave the way. Titus, of course, is much more interested in finding his wife and daughter, if they survived, and bringing them home.

Kenyon's world-building is exquisite; her vision of the Entire is rich and multilayered. The Entire is a truly frightening and beautiful place, and Titus's journey is spellbinding. As Titus becomes, once again, familiar with the world of the Entire, his memories start to come back, and he doesn't necessarily like what he remembers about his life there. I found a lot of parallels, emotionally and narratively, with Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I also highly recommend. Bright of the Sky is the first book in a series, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.


by Herman Melville
Unlike a lot of high schools, mine, in 1980s central Illinois, didn't cover a lot of "classics." And in some ways, that may have been a blessing, because I have never been more resistant to reading (especially reading assigned books (shudder)) than I was in high school. So, instead of my opinion of these musty old 19th century books being formed then, I get to discover them now, at a time in my life when no longer feel required to reject them as old and boring nor to praise them just because they're part of the canon - I can just read them, as books.

Moby-Dick has a reputation, and rightly so, for being a slog, and it was only after hearing an enthusiastic recommendation from an old friend that I even considered picking it up. I was pleased to find, as Jack Murnighan pointed out in a recent NPR piece, that much of the book is actually very funny, especially the first third, and I found myself laughing out loud at times while listening to the audiobook. The narrator is a likable guy, but a bit out of his element, and his job interview on the deck of the Pequod was one of the book's highlights for me.

Of course, soon, much to the dismay of many readers, the narrator is no longer out of his element, but is instead explaining every detail of the whaling industry. At times it's as if you've stumbled into a 19th-Century Wikipedia and are helplessly clicking on every link around the topics of Whales and Whaling. While I didn't skip any pages, there are certain times I feel okay about letting a chapter or two "wash over me," and this was definitely one of those times. The audiobook was especially good during these times, because I could tune my attention in or out, depending on my interest.

Honestly, though, I didn't find the technical parts all that dull. After a while I started to think of the novel as taking place in an alternate reality, one in which humans were endangered and animals were not, where there was still the possibility that there were real monsters out there. Read this way, Moby-Dick becomes a riveting feat of world-building fantasy.

That said, it's interesting to note that our narrator struggles with the idea that whales could, like the buffalo before them, be hunted nearly to extinction. And, unlike Captain Ahab, most of the whalemen have a difficult time believing that any whale could act with malicious intent.

It should also be said that, though Moby Dick was ahead of its time in many ways, as evidenced by the capable, racially-diverse crew of the Pequod, there are nevertheless times when the prejudices of the times reassert themselves, and the reader has to grimace a bit. And there are other sections when the beautiful language of the book sometimes gets into weird areas, for instance a section in which the whalemen rhapsodize about the wonderful feeling of sperm in their hands - meaning, of course, the oil harvested from a sperm whale. Though Melville has a wonderful sense of humor, I'm not sure this bit was meant to be funny.

Monday, June 01, 2009

City of Refuge

by Tom Piazza
City of Refuge is about two families living in New Orleans as Katrina approaches and then hits. But more than that, it's about the meaning of "home." How bad do things get before you give up on your home? What is home without the people who made it feel that way? What if your home doesn't feel like home to your wife? What ties you there, and what pulls you away?

Katrina is, of course, one of the most politicized disasters in recent history. Whereas other natural disasters can sometimes be thought of as a pure and simple tragedy, a terrible "act of God," there was nothing simple about Katrina and its aftermath. And even those in New Orleans when it hit were initially relieved when the storm missed the city and seemed to blow over with fairly minimal damage. Then the poorly-built levees broke, all around the city, and the waters rushed in. Around America, people saw it on the news, and almost immediately felt compelled to comment on it. "Why didn't those people get out of there?" "Why isn't the government helping them?" "Why would anyone build a house below sea level?" Tom Piazza captures the media storm as well as the experience of those whose lives were directly affected, who often had much less access to information about what was happening to their town.

I love books that put you firmly in the shoes and skins of people far away, people you never thought you'd relate to, and help you see through their eyes. Tom Piazza has written about New Orleans before, but here he expertly uses the novel form to create empathy in the reader. His characters are devastatingly real, beautifully flawed human beings who are doing what they can to live their lives, to make a home wherever they can.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

by Eric Weiner

According to studies by happiness researchers, the people of certain countries are, on average, much happier than those of other countries. Obviously, people living in hunger or abject poverty are likely to be unhappy, but how about those countries where people are relatively well-off? For instance, why are people in Moldova so much less happy than people in Bhutan? Why are Icelanders happier than Brits? Eric Weiner (yes, pronounced "Whiner,") a self-described neurotic and public radio commentator, travels around the world to find out.

First he stops in Amsterdam to, among other things, check in with Ruut Veenhoven, who created the World Database of Happiness. He asks how, exactly, happiness could be measured. What, exactly, is it - is it pleasure? Is it the satisfaction of doing good deeds? Is it spiritual enlightenment? And how accurate are people at knowing their own happiness levels?

Weiner brings the perfect mixture of cynicism and wonder to the task; he spends time in each country he visits, getting to know the people, the culture, the basic philosophies people live by. I found it an entertaining and thought-provoking philosophical travelogue.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

by Ned Sublette

Near the end of his history of early New Orleans, Ned Sublette says of Katrina and those hellish months afterwards: "To lose any American city would have been unthinkable. But to lose New Orleans..." Those of us who have lived in New Orleans or visited often have an understandable affection for the place. But the rest of us may wonder: what's so special about this low-lying, poverty-stricken city at the dirty end of the Mississippi? It's one of the oldest cities in America, but its history stood very much apart from the thirteen colonies. It was always an outsider, not quite French, not quite Spanish, not quite American, but the music that originated there came to define the American sound. It was a major center for slave trading, but at the same time had more free people of color than any other town in America.

True to the title of the book, Sublette ranges far and wide, from Africa to South America, from the Caribbean to Canada, to tell the story of the deep roots of New Orleans. I learned much more about Havana and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) than I'd ever known. New Orleans was apparently even more heavily influenced by the Caribbean than by France or Spain. And, though the effects of the Haitian Revolution sent deep reverberations all across the early United States, I had certainly never been taught about it in school. Though at times it seems Sublette is talking about anywhere but New Orleans, he keeps beautifully connecting it all, until the reader understands what a miraculous and unlikely culture New Orleans evolved into.

Friday, May 01, 2009


by M. T. Anderson

Science fiction fulfills many roles. It can be escapism, a fun ride, a prescient look at things to come. But great science fiction seems to do its best work when you're not reading it, when you've put the book down and you're walking around in your life and you get that vertiginous feeling that what you've been reading about is happening RIGHT NOW.

M. T. Anderson's Feed is one of those books, a short but potent tale of a generation who lives their entire lives connected to the Feed, the equivalent of our internet/ iPhone/instant messaging/satellite TV, so well integrated into the human body that it picks up our tiniest chemical surges and barest hints of desire. Wondering about something? You've already got the answer. Admire somebody's shirt? It's available from the following vendors at these incredible prices. It's not a new idea, but Anderson's gifts of language and characterization put you so vividly in the head of a Feed-connected teen that soon you'll be speaking the language.

Titus is visiting the moon with some of his friends, and, despite the Feed's constant hype about how awesome everything on the moon is, Titus and his friends are quickly getting bored. Then he meets Violet. She's beautiful, but she's also... different. She's connected to the Feed, of course, but talks more like someone who spends her time reading books. Together, they're caught in a terrorist attack, which shuts down their Feed connection, and technicians are called in to operate. Soon they're back up and running, but their lives may never be the same.

The audio version of Feed brings to life the barrage of advertisements, news items, and pop songs Anderson includes between chapters, giving the listener an even more vivid sense of being jacked in to the Feed. Anderson perfectly captures not only the dystopian landscape of corporately-sponsored youth culture, but also the teenage dilemma: enthusiastically accept what the world wants to sell you -- making you an "insider" -- or reject your culture and fight the system, making you an "outsider." Most of us get caught in-between.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Wife

by Curtis Sittenfeld

If you've ever thought about Laura Bush and wondered, "How did she end up with him?" Curtis Sittenfeld has wondered the same thing. There are critically-acclaimed biographies you could read, if you want to get the details, but Sittenfeld uses fiction to go deeper. It's not possible, of course, to really know what it's like to be Laura Bush; but "American Wife" allows us to know exactly what it's like to be Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren), a woman whose life story is very closely modeled around Bush's. When I started reading, I imagined the book would really get interesting once Alice met Charlie Blackwell, but I was soon so caught up in the fascinating character of Alice that I felt in no hurry for her to grow up and get married. Sittenfeld's pacing is perfect, somewhere between a page-turner and a character-driven literary novel.

Though the parallels to Laura Bush are plentiful, the reader can also relax and enjoy the story as fiction. At its core, the story asks, What is it like to set your own life aside to follow someone you love? Is it possible to be yourself while also unintentionally becoming a public figure? Does loyalty to your husband or wife take away from your loyalty to yourself?

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

by Nicholson Baker

I remember the first time I heard about Hitler. My father and I were hiking along a creek in Northern Illinois as he told me the basics. I was baffled by the idea that murder, that most basic of all wrongdoing, would ever be encouraged by a world leader. This shows how naive I was at the time; it wasn't long before I would learn of the myriad exceptions to "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Later, as I continued to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about World War II, I came to accept the idea that, however I might feel about the morality of war in general, this particular war was both necessary and unavoidable. I could doubt the existence of true evil in the world, yet see it clearly in the actions of Hitler and his Nazis. If there was ever a time to step in and destroy evil to preserve goodness, this was it.

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke asks that we look again. Baker is known for seeing the details most of us miss; this time he's turned his eye on the ephemera of the years leading up to World War II -- journals, diaries, newspaper articles, contemporary interviews, radio speeches -- and put together a chronological mosaic of people and places as they were at the time. The major players are there, as are the citizens and soldiers, but we also hear quite a bit from those who opposed the war, and those who offered alternate paths. More than anything I've read, this book took the inevitability out of the equation, left me wondering not only what would happen but what could happen. What if Roosevelt had loosened our tight quotas on Jewish immigrants, allowing thousands of refugees to escape from Europe? What if Churchill had not insisted on his blockade, which starved not only the Nazis but all those innocents we told ourselves we were saving? Why did Roosevelt find it necessary in 1934 to parade our battleships through Japanese waters? What if Hitler's ridiculous plan to send the Jews to Madagascar had succeeded, instead of his horrific "Plan B"?

By our actions, did we save as many lives as we destroyed? Is war ever truly inevitable?

Whatever conclusions you come to after reading Human Smoke, it's well worth the time. It was one of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking books I've read in a great while.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith
Ever since I read my first book by Charles Dickens (actually this was embarrassingly recent) I can't help but identify certain books as "Dickensian." It's a bad habit, and I'm trying to cut down, but just once more, I have to say it: Zadie Smith's White Teeth is, let's face it, Dickensian. I mean it in the best way: the book is multilayered, with a large cast of memorable characters coming from a large variety of classes, colors, creeds, and countries, all colliding in present-day London. Smith's voice is omniscient, her tone both humorous and heartbreaking. She's one of those writers who can introduce character after character without the reader becoming fatigued.

At the core, White Teeth is a tale of two families: the Iqbals, originally from Bangladesh, and the Joneses, of London and Jamaica. The two patriarchs fought (mainly with each other) in World War II, and have been inseparable ever since. Their younger wives hold the families together, and the kids - Irie Jones and Magid and Millat Iqbal - refuse to be contained. Smith is, herself, part Jamaican and part English, and seems to perfectly capture the sense of being a new hybrid in the Old World. The dialects and wildly disparate characters moving perpendicularly to each other reminded me of "The Confederacy of Dunces" at times. Though the narrative spins off in multiple directions, it does manage to come together explosively in the end. This book made me a definite Smith fan, and I can't wait to read her other works.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
During a failed attempt to climb K2, mountain bum Greg Mortenson found himself stumbling into uncharted territory, a small Pakistani village not on any map. The people there treated him with great kindness, though they were very poor even by local standards. That's when Mortenson made a promise that would change his life: he told his new friends he would build them a school for their children.

Back home in California, living out of his car while working as a temporary EMT, Mortenson started to wonder what on earth he had been thinking, making such a promise, when he himself was barely scraping by. He knew nothing about fundraising, construction, or any of the skills he would need to build a school on the other side of the world. "Three Cups of Tea" tells how he eventually fulfills his promise, and goes on to build dozens of schools, most of them for girls, where they're needed most. And, without meaning to, he helps to fight terrorism at its very source. An incredible story, all the better because it's true.