Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan

July 27, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

In the Shadow of the Banyan was the selection for my Book Club’s July meeting. 

In the Shadow of the BanyanIn the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel
by Vaddey Ratner, Historical Fiction (Released August, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Seven year old Raami and her family face the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Cambodia in the late 1970’s.
My Thoughts: As you can probably guess by the summary, this is a serious book. It’s based on the author and her family’s real experience as minor royals during the Cambodian occupation, including being forced to leave their home in Phnom Penh by Khmer Rouge soldiers, to labor in the rice fields, and to separate from extended family members. I had a very hard time getting into this book. Though the second half is better than the first, it still didn’t really make an impression on me. The beginning of the book focuses on Raami’s family life as Cambodian royals – talking lots about their lifestyle, food, customs, and storytelling. It did a pretty mediocre job of setting the stage for the occupation as the predominant theme of the book and I was somewhat confused about what the war/occupation was truly about. The occupation is also initially described almost as a list of different atrocities the family witnesses out of a car window. The atrocities are described in such little detail that I didn’t have a chance to get emotionally involved or feel too deeply. The characters in the first part of the book (mostly family members and their servants) also failed to touch me emotionally…they felt like no more than names with designated roles to me, with no real personalities. Finally, there is a huge focus on legend-like stories and “tevodas” (godlike mythical beings) that Raami’s dad passes down to her, but I found them confusing and irrelevant to the real story of the family’s experience during the occupation. The second half of the book is better – it focuses more on the occupation and less on the family and its storytelling. Even so, the second half still didn’t come alive for me emotionally like many of the other war/occupation books I’ve read. All this being said, I really liked the Author’s Note at the end of the book about her real experience…it was better than the actual book! It clearly outlined what the Khmer Rouge occupation was truly about and made me actually feel the severity of the situation, something the actual book never really accomplished. Ratner probably should have made it a Prologue instead – it would have set the stage for the story and fixed the problem of wondering what the heck you were reading about in the beginning. Or, taking it a step further, maybe she should have just written a straight-up memoir! This is clearly a book that is suppose to move the reader and touch him/her emotionally and it just completely failed to do that for me, although I do appreciate what Ratner went through as a child.

Book Review: Fall of Giants

July 25, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

Fall of GiantsFall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy
by Ken Follett, Historical Fiction (Released September, 2010)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Five families’ (one Russian, one Welsh, one British, one German, and one American) personal and professional lives are uprooted through World War I and the Russian Revolution.
My Thoughts: If you liked The Pillars of Earth and World Without End, you will love Fall of Giants. But, the topic and time period of Fall of Giants should appeal to an even broader audience. Follett combines historical accuracy with enticing characters and personal stories – making his books a fun way to learn history! I loved learning about the diplomatic dance between superpowers in the lead-up to WWI and seeing a variety of perspectives on the war (5 different countries, various political views, and different social classes). Focusing on the homefront enriches the characters and makes this far more than just a “war” book. At 1,000 pages, Fall of Giants is going on my Time to Kill List.

Book Review: Don’t Put Me In, Coach

July 23, 2013 Books to Skip, Nonfiction, Sports 0

Dont Put Me In CoachDon’t Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench
by Mark Titus, Nonfiction – Sports (Released March, 2012)
Bottom Line: Skip it.
 Titus chronicles his experience as a bench-rider on the Ohio State men’s basketball teams starring Greg Oden and Evan Turner.
My Thoughts: Titus is sort of amusing (but not hilarious) as he makes light of his experience in NCAA basketball and as the comic relief in the locker room. There are a few decent anecdotes about Oden and Turner, but far too many stories about Titus needing to visit the men’s room during the critical moments of games.

Book Review: Ghosts of Manhattan

July 22, 2013 Books to Read, Business, Fiction 0

Ghosts of ManhattanGhosts of Manhattan: A Novel
by Douglas Brunt, Fiction (Released October, 2012)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Amid the 2005 mortgage bubble, thirty five year old Bear Stearns bond trader, Nick Farmer, faces disillusionment with his career decision, personal life, and strategy decisions at Bear.
My Thoughts: My in-laws were the first people to tell me I should read this book and I was a little skeptical because I’d read so many “Wall Street excess tell-alls” that they had started to run together in my head and ceased to be interesting. There’s only so many times you can read about money, drunkenness, cocaine, and hookers before it becomes a bit repetitive. But, this book was different…in a good way! First, it’s fiction and the author was not a Wall Street trader, so it’s technically not a “roman a clef” about his real experience. But, obviously the setting and characters are based on what Wall Street was generally like in the middle of the mortgage bubble. Second, Brunt’s observations about the social hierarchy in the banking/trading/finance world and the situations and characters you encounter there are witty, spot-on, and well said. I would go so far as to say that Brunt comes close to Tom Wolfe territory with his social commentary. Though Brunt does include his fair share of partying, drugs, and prostitutes, it’s the social commentary and his PERFECT analogies that were the most entertaining for me. Nick is also having an inner struggle with his career choice and the effects of that lifestyle on his marriage, which gives the novel more depth than your average Wall Street excess tell-all and makes Nick a more sympathetic character. Finally, this book deals with a theme that a lot of people my age (35, like Nick) are confronting. What happens when you choose a career right out of college, without knowing much about what that career really entails, and thinking you may do that job for a couple years before moving on, then wake up fifteen years later still doing this thing that you never intended to be your life’s work? How do you make a change at age thirty five when many people have families to support and how do you figure out what you really want to do with your life? These are difficult and relatable questions and Nick goes through the range of emotions and thought processes as he’s working this out. Ghosts of Manhattan successfully crosses the Wall Street excess tell-all and the Tom Wolfe-style social satire for a great summer read…particularly for guys. It’s going on my Books for Guys2013 Summer Reading, and Business Books lists.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

July 18, 2013 Books to Read, Nonfiction 0

I have never been in a real Book Club…until now! I know that sounds crazy for someone who writes a book blog, but I never wanted to be forced to read books I didn’t want to read just for a club. Well, I now see the error of my ways. I just joined a Book Club in my new city, Larchmont, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the selection for my first meeting. This book is a perfect example of something I “didn’t really want to read”, but ended up loving and I loved having a great group of girls to talk about it with!

Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot, Nonfiction (Released February, 2010)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: The true story of the woman whose tissue became one of science’s most important discoveries, the “immortal” HeLa cells that enabled countless medical breakthroughs (including the Polio Vaccine).
My Thoughts: This was yet another book that I’d been hearing about forever and actually had on my “to read” list for awhile before finally being forced to pick it up for Book Club. I remember going to Amazon multiple times to read the plot summary and deciding not to buy it. I don’t think I ever really understood what the book was about and all the science talk went over my head. I also don’t think it sunk in that it was a true story, although I’m sure someone told me it was or I read it on Amazon at some point. So, my big lesson is that if a book’s plot summary sounds awful, but it’s still extraordinarily popular, there is probably a reason and I should just give it a try! The Prologue does a fantastic job setting up this story and making boring science interesting – maybe Amazon should have just printed the Prologue as their plot summary! I loved the way Skloot structured the story – she wrote about the HeLa cells and the Lacks family in the context of her own journey researching the book. So, she is the narrator and ends up being an actual character. Taking this approach added so much to the story and some of the funniest and most moving moments come from Skloot’s interactions with Henrietta’s family. Deborah (Henrietta’s daughter) is a fantastic character – she’s somewhat crazy, but I felt for her and her whole family. They are funny, poignant, and troubled. They are uneducated and completely confused and overwhelmed by what has become of their mother’s cells. They, for the most part, have a thirst for information about HeLa and a childlike glee every time they learn something new. However, they are incredibly angry and bitter at times and don’t know who to trust. I also learned so much about medical research and practices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, medical ethics debates (particularly about informed consent), and treatment of blacks in hospitals in the time of Jim Crow. This book completely surprised me and was a great mix of storytelling and learning. It’s going on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: Defending Jacob

July 16, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Defending JacobDefending Jacob by William Landay
431 Pages
Released January, 2012
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

Jacob Barber, the 14 year old son of the local Assistant District Attorney, is accused of murdering a classmate, causing his parents to face family secrets and cracks in their marriage.

My Thoughts

At first I thought this book was a typical legal thriller – entertaining and suspenseful, but nothing special. However, I was pleasantly proven wrong by some unexpected elements. This is a fairly easy read that goes quickly, but there are some psychological twists that definitely make you think. I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone, so all I will say is stick with this one, even if it seems like many other courtroom dramas early on. Defending Jacob is not as good as Gone Girl, but definitely worth reading – I’m adding it to my Page Turners List.

Book Review: But Mama Always Put Vodka in her Sangria

July 14, 2013 Books to Skip, Cooking / Food, Nonfiction 0

But Mama Always Put Vodka in her SangriaBut Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!: Adventures in Eating, Drinking, and Making Merry
by Julia Reed, Nonfiction – Cooking / Food 
(Released April, 2013)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Essays on eating, drinking, and entertaining…in a Southern way.
My Thoughts: I loved Julia Reed’s essay collection on Southern life (Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena), so was looking forward to her food book…obviously, since I love eating! At first, I loved it and thought it was a perfect book for Southern girls who love to eat…and made my mouth water and hips expand just by reading. Reed is funny, eccentric, and irreverent. Her first two essays are hilarious and hit the nail on the head. One is about how Southern food brings all kinds of people together…and puts snooty French fare to shame! The second essay makes fun of NYC socialites’ horrible “diet” food they serve at their cocktail parties. Some will probably say Reed is over the top with her name dropping, but I personally enjoyed reading about celebrities’ eating and drinking habits! After the first two essays, the book went downhill for me. I’m not a big exotic cocktails person (mostly white wine, or the occasional Mojito, for me!), so the entire second section bored me. I just couldn’t make myself interested in a whole chapter debating the finer points of Martini variations. I also didn’t realize how many recipes were in this book – both for food and cocktails. It’s sort of like The Pat Conroy Cookbook, a cookbook with accompanying stories. This book could make a good gift (in paper format, of course!!), but was not a good choice to just read…especially on Kindle. 

Book Review: Dark Places

July 12, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Dark PlacesDark Places: A Novel
by Gillian Flynn, Fiction (Released May, 2009)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Libby Day, the sole innocent survivor of the “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” in which her brother, Ben, is convicted of murdering her mother and two sisters, teams up with members of a Kill Club to try to figure out what really happened that night.
My Thoughts:
 After reading and loving Gone Girl, I was excited to read more Gillian Flynn. I chose Dark Places because it was a NY Times Bestseller, so I figured it would be decent. Wrong! The characters in Gone Girl were smart and witty, and even likable at times. The main characters in Dark Places are depressing and definitely not witty – there is actually not a single likable character in the book – I wanted to shake all of them. As I read, I was picturing bleak scene after bleak scene – if there is ever a movie made of this book, I think it would be in black and white. There is also a focus on devil worship and some pretty graphic scenes that were a bit much for me. I do have to give Flynn some credit for dreaming up the perfect title; I just should have paid more attention to it.

Book Review: The Interestings

July 9, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Released April, 2013
481 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

Jules Jacobson becomes best friends with five teenagers at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s, remaining friends despite completely different experiences in adulthood.

My Thoughts

The Interestings was one of Amazon’s “Best Books of the Month” for April and I have had hits and misses from this list. Thankfully, this one was a hit for me, despite getting mixed reviews from Amazon readers. I have a lot to say about The Interestings, so buckle up!

This is a character-driven, coming of age story with a strong sense of time and place (Nixon 70’s, AIDS era 80’s, NYC, etc). The book begins when the central characters (Jules, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, and the brother/sister duo of Ash and Goodman Wolf) meet at Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp for the arts. During this section, the characters actually annoyed me and I didn’t think I was going to like the book because of it. They struck me as trying too hard to be “artsy” and “different” and they also had the Dawson’s Creek way of talking about things that are way above the heads of your average teenager.

However, the characters do mature and become more likable in adulthood and I ended up being completely invested in them as the book went on. I particularly loved Dennis, who becomes a central character later in the book, as he was the opposite of everything that initially annoyed me about the central characters. He provides the “outsider view” and has such a reasonable, normal perspective on the sometimes ridiculous goings on of the “camp crowd”.

Jules’ narration is also fantastic – she offers funny, spot-on commentary of people and situations and is incredibly honest; matter of factly describing things people probably think, but would never dare say aloud.

The Wolf family itself is a compelling, if not totally likable character – they are outgoing and social and have that inexplicable quality that draws others into their orbit, but they also have internal demons and flawed relationships with each other. It’s perfect that all the kids call the Wolf’s NYC apartment The Labyrinth.

After the first summer at camp, the story flashes forward to present day (around 2009) and you actually find out where some of the characters ended up in life…keep in mind, this is very early in the book. I was worried this would take the suspense out of the story, but I was actually dying to find out the details of how they ended up where they did. With other characters, Wolitzer gradually releases bits of information like teasers. I actually loved this combination and I think it created a good amount of suspense in a book that is not a typical “page turner” story.

The adulthood portion of the book deals with themes that many childhood friendships face. How do you maintain closeness despite growing in different directions and having different priorities (family, career, level of success, etc)? How do you handle lifestyle differences when friends end up at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum? Can a friendship survive the emotions associated with that (jealousy, guilt, awkwardness)? How does the addition of a spouse change your relationship with your friends? I’m currently in the early stages of settling into adulthood (many peers have families, are settling into career choices, and are figuring out how they want to live their lives) and found these themes incredibly relatable.

Finally, the writing flowed and soothed…almost (but not quite!) as well as John Irving’s or Pat Conroy’s. The combination of great writing, fantastic characters, and relatable themes makes The Interestings a book that I always looked forward to picking up again – not because I just had to know what happens next, but because I always looked forward to sinking back into these people’s world. The Interestings is going on my Book Club Recommendations and 2013 Summer Reading lists.

Book Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

July 8, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel
by Ben Fountain, Fiction (Released May, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Billy Lynn and his fellow members of Bravo Company return from Iraq as heros for their performance in the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal – and are taken on a “victory tour” culminating in a VIP visit to a Dallas Cowboys game at Texas Stadium.
My Thoughts: This book was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, so I had high expectations going in. I was annoyed with the beginning, but the book eventually grew on me. Initially, Billy and his Company come across as petulant, crass, and incredibly immature and Fountain’s writing style bothered me (very stream of consciousness). But, once Fountain starts interspersing memories of the battle in Iraq and the Company’s family visits with their experiences at the Cowboys game, I saw a broader purpose in the things that had annoyed me. The Company showed outward disdain for shallow people doing shallow jobs back in the States (i.e. almost everyone they met), but it hit me that it must truly seem that way to someone who was yanked from an intense war experience and plopped down at an NFL football game full of glamour, sparkles, and shallow conversations with strangers who pretend to understand what the Company went through. While I don’t think this book warranted its National Book Award nomination and it does lack a true plot (rather, it is a portrayal of an experience), it is an eye-opening read that makes you think and is going on my Books for Guys List.