Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Title: The Grand Sophy
Author: Georgette Heyer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A few "damnables."

As a member of the Whitney Committee, I've had the opportunity to read a whole bunch of historical romances over the last five years. It seems that many of these stories are set in the Regency period in England, and that a majority of those stories seem to be written in the vein of the Jane Austen greats (with varying degrees of success). When I've talked with my friends about these novels, they invariably throw around the name Georgette Heyer as the gold standard in Regency romances. I had never read anything about Georgette Heyer, and when this book came up as the Audible deal of the day, I snapped it right up and started listening.

Heyer is pretty amazing, at least in The Grand Sophy, which is the story of what happens when the wealthy Ombersley family agrees to take in their cousin Sophy, whose father wants her to have a season in London after growing up abroad. Sophy is essentially a Mary Poppins of her time. She swoops in, monkey in tow, and proceeds to whip the dysfunctional family into a state of functionality. There are engagements to undo, debts to pay, horses to break, and hearts to heal. The book is wildly entertaining, and unlike so many other Regency romances I've read, Heyer gets her details right-- the characters talk in a way that sounds like they could come from their time period, but never in a way that distracts from the story. I couldn't tell when the book had been written (and was surprised to find out it was published in 1950). The characters feel fresh (if a little flat at times), and even though I knew what was going to happen at the end of the novel, the madcap finale was fully satisfying. This might be considered the best of Heyer's works, but it won't be the last I read.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Title: The Godfather
Author: Mario Puzo
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Lots of drugs, swearing, some sex

You know the story already, right? The move is one of your favorites, right? For the uninitiated, Michael Corleone is the youngest of Don Corleone's three sons. The Don is the head of the largest crime family in New York, having risen up the ranks from being an unemployed orphan immigrant. Michael is the golden child, the war hero who chose the Ivy League over the mob. And The Godfather is the story (among other things) of Michael breaking bad. He seems (mostly) motivated by love and loyalty, with a healthy dose of hubris thrown in (in the best Shakespearean tragedy sort of sense). But The Godfather is more than just Michael's story-- we learn about the intimate details of everyone from a godson living in Hollywood to Don Vito's oldest son's former mistress's fiance. All of the stories are told well and are compelling, and, of course, I feel a movie marathon in my future.

One of the greatest pleasures in my day is getting the Audible Daily Deal email. It's always there when I check my email first thing in the morning, and I love seeing what could occupy my brain for 10 or 12 hours for just $1.95 or $3.95. I believe that's how The Godfather fell into my Audible queue. Of course, I've heard of The Godfather a lot over the years, but I've never seen the movies, and until a few weeks ago, had never read the book. As a result, I wasn't aware of the pivotal role The Godfather plays in our cultural stew. I mean, I've watched every episode of The Sopranos, and so many of the situations and characters obviously have their roots in The Godfather. Or maybe they both have their roots in the same New York/New Jersey crime syndicates, but either way, The Godfather must have influenced The Sopranos, because I can't imagine that David Chase isn't familiar with the book.

As an added bonus, the audiobook is expertly narrated by Joe Mantegna, and worth listening to just for that fact.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Title: Lila (Gilead #3)
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Violence, some langague, prostitution

It takes a lot for me to give a book a five-star rating. It also takes a lot for me to fall in love with a book that is a sequel, especially a sequel to a sequel, and even more if I haven't read either of the first two books. I've heard a lot about Marilynne Robinson over the years. I've heard my friends drooling over Gilead and Home, the first two books in this series, but I tried my hand at Housekeeping a while back (one of Robinson's stand-alone books), and I hated it. So it was with a lot of reluctance that I started Lila, and I was surprised that within an hour, I was completely captivated by the story.

If you're familiar with Gilead, Lila is the story of John Ames's wife in his twilight years. She was stolen from a front porch at the age of about four, and lived a hard life until she wandered into Gilead about thirty years later. She doesn't feel worthy of much, and certainly not of becoming a preacher's wife. Lila explores her experiences with living a life she never thought would be hers-- especially with falling in love and having a home and a child, and maybe even at being redeemed. The book is beautifully written and thoughtful and nuanced, and definitely one of the best things I've read this year.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Title: The Spectacular Now
Author: Tim Tharp
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: lots of swearing, sex, underage drug and (pervasive) alcohol use (including lots and lots of drunk driving)

Sutter Keely is the kind of guy I watched from a distance in high school. He's the life of every party. He has a huge heart. He's also trouble with a capital T. The opening scene of the novel pretty much sums up his character-- Sutter is supposed to be driving to his girlfriend's house to take her to get her hair cut, but instead he's nursing a 7Up spiked with vodka while driving around Oklahoma City, skipping school on a beautiful late winter day, when he spots a small boy all alone. Sutter finds that the boy is running away from home (and not sure exactly where he lives), and the two spend the next hour finding his house, where Sutter gets bawled out by the boy's mother, and then gets bawled out by his girlfriend for missing the appointment. He doesn't have much of anything together, and he has a serious drinking problem.

When the girlfriend dumps Sutter's sorry self, he starts hanging out with Aimee, who is smart, but nerdy, and totally clueless. She's spent most of her high school years delivering a paper route for her mother, and her stepfather and brother boss her around regularly. A normal YA novel would probably have Sutter clean up his act as a result of hanging out with Aimee, while Aimee would gain some social skills and a backbone. But that's not what happens. What does happen instead is more realistic and messy, and definitely worth reading to find out. I love that Tharp is working with ambiguity and complicated characters in this novel, and I'm now eager to watch the screen adaptation of The Spectacular Now (starring Shailene Woodley as Aimee and Miles Teller as Sutter).

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book Review: The Tastemakers by David Sax

Title: The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue
Author: David Sax
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle

I heard David Sax on talking about his new book, The Tastemakers, on RadioWest a month or so ago. I was out walking the kids and the dog, and I was so captivated by the conversation that I came right home, bought the book and started reading. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I love this kind of stuff-- where food intersects with pop culture. In The Tastemakers, Sax explores food trends-- what makes a trend grow big (basically, put it on an influential television show or launch it in NYC), how future trends can be predicted, why some trends make it while others don't, and where good food trends go to die (The Melting Pot, apparently).

Sax does a nice job educating his reader while being entertaining, Part journalist, part memoirist, Sax goes to apple orchards in Canada (what will replace the Honeycrisp as the darling apple of the next decade?), to Baconfest, and to Dole with a group of food bloggers. However, there wasn't a lot I felt like I learned about food trends from the story, beyond what Sax and Doug Fabrizio talked about during the hour-long show. Still, this is an entertaining, quick read, and good for anyone who wants to know why the heck we're all eating kale chips and chia seeds right now.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart

Title: My Story
Author: Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: this is a really hard book to listen to because of the descriptions of constant sexual and psychological abuse

Elizabeth Smart doesn't hold back in My Story, which begins at the time of her abduction in June 2002 by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, and ends shortly after she is reunited with her family in March 2003. The book is detailed (she writes about being raped daily), and honest, and insightful, and, at times, faith-promoting. It's also incredibly hard to read. My twelve-year-old daughter wanted to listen to the audiobook after one of her church leaders talked about it, but I told her I thought it would be a better book for her to read so she could skip some of the more graphic parts.

I think that having Smart narrate her book had some pros and cons. On the one hand, it's interesting to hear the story in her own words. On the other hard, she is not a professional narrator. She sounds really scornful when she talks about Barzee and Mitchell, which is completely understandable, but I felt like it detracted from the overall story at times.

This was a book I wanted to love, and wanted to be able to give a great review. It is very honest and brave, but it also has some significant shortcomings that made it hard to read at times.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Title: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Author: Walter Isaacson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle

I'll come clean with my biases first. I'm not a huge fan of biographies. I'd rather read ten memoirs than one biography. One of the most notable exceptions to this rule of thumb was Walter Isaacson's fantastic biography of Steve Jobs, and I decided to read The Innovators on the strength of that book (I have tried, and failed to read his Ben Franklin bio, and I think I own a copy of his Einstein bio too). The Innovators isn't exactly a biography-- instead it's more of a history of the digital revolution, which boils down to a whole bunch (maybe 50 or so) mini bios of individuals who have played significant roles in the revolution, from Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron, who created the first algorithm carried out by a machine) down to Sergey Brin (Google) and Larry Sanger (Wikipedia). Isaacson posits the theory that the most successful innovators were people who were well-rounded-- interested in both artistic and scientific pursuits, and who had a supportive community with whom they could work. In fact, Lovelace had Babbage, Brin had Page, and Sanger had Wales (just as Jobs had Wozniak and Gates had Allen).

Honestly, I found the first half of the book to be deathly boring. The chapter on Ada Lovelace was pretty captivating, but from then on it was dullsville, jumping from professor to professor and their petty battles over vacuum tubes. The story got really interesting at the end of WWII, when a bunch of female programmers, including Jean Jennings and Grace Hopper, were hired to work on an early computer. They developed a language (COBOL) which enabled them to write commands for their computers using language rather than numbers. These women are generally credited with shifting the innovating focus from hardware to software development. The rest of the book was much more interesting, especially as Isaacson focused on characters who continue to play a huge role in our lives (where would we be without Google and Wikipedia? I've used them both half a dozen times while writing this review). So a worthwhile story, but it definitely had a slow start. I've read some critics who feel that Isaacson cherry picked innovators who fit into his "artist+scientist" thesis, but I don't know enough about the history of computer science to verify that.

As for me, while I'm glad I read the book, I still think reading memoirs by some of the main players would have been far more interesting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: The Son by Jo Nesbo

Title: The Son
Author: Jo Nesbo
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Lots of violence, some sex, lots of swearing

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about my feelings about PD James, who was probably the greatest mystery writer of her time. While I crush on Adam Dalgleish in a way that I don't on Harry Hole (the detective at the centre of most Jo Nesbo novels), I really do think that Nesbo is probably the most talented writer in the mystery/thriller genre writing today. His novels are hard, and violent, and gritty, but they're also insightful and fast-paced, with wonderfully rounded characters. He also manages not to throw out a bunch of red herrings, instead tying in all of the loose ends of a story in a satisfying way.

For the last dozen years, Sonny Lofthus has been able to maintain his heroin habit in prison by confessing to a series of crimes he didn't commit. But when he discovers that the people who have kept him doped up may also have been responsible for his father's death, he manages to kick then habit, then break out of prison to avenge the crimes. This stand-alone novel gives us interesting insights into Lofthus's psyche, as well as in the motives of several other characters, including the police detective who was his father's partner, and the woman who may be falling for Sonny. It's interesting that although Sonny is a criminal, a drug addict, and murderer many times over, readers can't help but root for him. The end of the novel had a satisfying surprise and an even more satisfying final scene. Sometimes I question my decision to read widely, even the kinds of books that are very dark and violent like The Son, but I often find these books provide the most nuanced, most rewarding look at life.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I'll miss you, PD James

When I was a kid, I loved reading books in series. I tore through the Little House on the Prairie books, hid out on the back porch with the Betsy-Tacy series, and read (and sobbed over) the Anne of Green Gables books so many times that the bindings fell apart. There was just about nothing I liked more than a great character whose story I could follow over an extended period of time.

So it's probably no surprise that when I was introduced to the work of PD James in college, I developed a serious crush on Adam Dalgleish, the police detective at the center of most of her novels. I loved his great brain, his tortured past, his sideline work as a poet. I loved the way that he was ageless, modern, and generous of spirit. In the fall of my senior year at BYU, I went to London on Study Abroad. I had the great fortune of creating my own senior seminar course, and decided to read the works of great British mystery writers. But I got sidetracked by PD James. While I was supposed to be reading Wilkie Collins, I was actually heading down to Waterstone's to pick up Original Sin. I think I read all eight of the Adam Dalgleish books she had already written while I was in London, along with both of the Cordelia Gray books. When I saw that she was publishing something new, it was always the first thing I put on my Christmas list. Her mysteries were just so smart and insightful, and Dalgleish was my literary Superman.

I wasn't surprised when I heard that PD James died last week (But I'm sad, especially that my literary heartthrob, Adam Dalgleish, has died along with her). She was 94 (and still working on another novel). As I read more of her novels, and learned more about her life, I gained a great admiration for her. While she said in interviews several times that she always planned on being a novelist, she left school at the age of sixteen because she needed to work to help support her family. She married an army doctor in 1941, and had two daughters during the war years. However, when the war was over, her husband's poor mental health prevented him from steady employment, and she continued working. She published her first novel in 1962 (at the age of 42), while working full-time, while caring for her husband and two teenage daughters. In fact, she continued working in the service of the British government until she retired in 1979. Whenever I start to get down on myself for not churning out the great American novel, I think of PD James, who had so many excuses not to write, and whose work showed such a depth of insight that I'm glad she didn't give in to those excuses. In all, despite her late start, despite her full-time job, despite her family's demands, she published more than 20 works of wickedly smart contemporary detective fiction, non-fiction, an autobiography, a dystopian novel, and a Regency romance/murder mystery. So, aspiring writer out there-- don't give up hope-- don't think you have to have that room of your own and five hundred pounds to be a writer.

Thanks, PD James, for all of your wonderful books, and for your remarkable life. 


Sunday, November 16, 2014

An unremarkable Friday night

About an hour ago, I picked my fourteen-year-old son up from the high school, where he was waiting after his first swim meet. I sat across the driveway as he climbed the stairs, calling to his friends, "Good job," and "See you in the morning." He was smiling, tired, happy. In the car on the way home, he talked about how he'd scored 106 on an English test, and laughed with his sister about something someone had said on Twitter. Just a nice, normal Friday night, right? So why was I fighting back tears?

A little more than ten years ago, I sat in the dining room when the woman from Early Intervention gave me the news. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and run from the room, telling her she had it all wrong. How could this boy-- my beautiful oldest son, playing at my feet in his Buzz Lightyear costume, the boy who loved trains and reciting the poems from his Baby Einstein videos, how could he have autism?

"What does that mean? What kind of life will he have?" I asked.

"I don't really know-- it's a spectrum," was all she managed to say. Or at least all I managed to hear. My mind was whirring, protesting, reeling too much to listen to details.

I needed a hug, reassurance, hope. I know it would have been hard for this lady, whose name, face and title I can't remember but whose words still make me shudder, to tell me that my child would have a typical life. She couldn't read the future, she barely knew my son, and so she played it safe, told me that I'd get a call from someone to set up home visits, and left.

After days of reading online, I was even more terrified for his future. Certainly, there would be specialists, special education, therapies, and medication. Even then, the future looked bleak.

The last ten years haven't always been easy. We've had good years and bad years. First and second grades were fantastic-- so great that our pediatrician was convinced that the initial diagnosis was wrong. Fourth and fifth grades were horrendous. We've tried medications and behavior therapy and summer camp for kids on the spectrum. We've had fantastic church leaders who acted like his behaviors were no big deal, and some Primary teachers who seemed wholly overwhelmed when they saw his name on the roll. Now that he's a teenager, he's taking an active role in his treatment, and has been motivated by self-consciousness into modifying some of the behaviors that plagued him when he was younger.

Our son's ASD hasn't been "cured." But he's on the mild end of the spectrum, to be sure, and the reality of his life today could have been different. I spent many years in fear for his future, many years feeling like I had to downplay his accomplishments ("yeah, he's brilliant at facts, but you know he's on the autism spectrum, and that's kind of his thing"), many years tamping down my expectations because I didn't want either of us to be disappointed if he couldn't meet them.

I know we can't see the future-- jumping into the abyss is what we do as parents.

But if I just could have had a glimpse at what my son's future would hold ten years down the line, if I just could have seen five seconds of a normal night like tonight, I would have felt so reassured as that scared mom of a beautiful three-year-old boy.

We're not at the end of this road yet. While we're in a good place now, I know that the challenges of later teen years, a mission, college, and independent life still lay ahead of our son.

But let's celebrate tonight. Tonight, this ordinary Friday night, with my tired son drinking a milkshake and laughing beside me, when I stop to think about it, tonight feels like a miracle.