Friday, November 18, 2011

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

2011, 373 pages
Marina Singh, a scientist in a pharmacological company, is sent from the comfort of her lab in Minnesota to the Amazonas rainforest to check on a revolutionary research done by an eccentric scientist, Annick Swenson, who refuses to give any timetable or progress report. The last person sent to this mission, Marina’s lab partner, died of fever in the research camp, and Marina has another mission: to find out what exactly had happened to him – Dr. Swenson did not waste her time giving too many details – and gather his belongings for his family.
The book is beautifully written and covers so many subjects, handling of all of them in a very touching way: growing up as a child of a mixed marriage of an American woman and a doctorate student from an exotic country, never really belonging to any place; a demanding career and the toll on relationship, and different kind of relationship, for example with vast age differences; career choices, made by traumatic events and their outcomes; relationship with admired but strict and eccentric teachers; the overwhelming transition from cool north US to the hot humid and insect infested tropical environment; moral issues when developing a revolutionary drug and the use of local population for the research on one hand and protecting them on the other, and many more. All of these are fascinating, and as I said treated well, but these are too many areas to be dealt with in a not-so-long book, and I felt that though I was very interested in the book, it didn’t capture me until way into the book, about three quarters of it. Then there was some focus in the plot and I was completely captivated and could not let the book down. I wish the focus would be achieved earlier in the book to make the whole reading experience as fascinating as the end. But in any case, the book is very interesting, well written, and raises a lot of points to think about. I recommend it, but be ready for a relatively slow plot for most of the book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty

2011, 432 page

29 years old Alice is happily married to Nick and they are expecting their first child. One day she wakes up after apparently hitting her head, and she finds out that 10 years has passed since her last memory, 10 years that were completely erased from her head. And it seems like her life went in a completely different direction than where she thought they will when she was 29. Some of the changes seem blessed - she is thinner, wearing elegant cloths in size Small, her belly is flat and muscular and it seems like she spends many hours at the gym. She has three children. Her house looks exactly what she always dreamed it will, and even more. She is not that shy insecure woman anymore, apparently she does all kind of public activities and even hosts parties at her home, could you believe that. But she finds out that other aspects of her life, that seemed so safe and stable, also changed, and not for good. Mostly, she just can't believe and she and Nick are getting a divorce. How could that be? They love each other so much, they are so right for each other. They complete each other. She starts a journey to understand what happened, what went so wrong, and who is Gina whose name comes up again and again every time she tries to make sense of these overwhelming new facts she has to learn about her life.
What are the important things Alice forgot? Are these those 10 years of her life that vanished with the bump on her head? Or maybe these are those things she knew at the age of 29, that somehow the daily routine and the unexpected events during the last 10 years made her abandon and forget, and now young Alice is here to remind her? The answer is not clear to the end of the book, and also the mystery of what exactly happened and why. I was completely fascinated by Alice's story, and laughed and cried with her, and I so hoped that the book will end up the way I wanted it to. The book is a light read but it handles the everyday items and builds up our lives - marriage life, the changes with the birth of the kids, the hard work of raising kids and the consequences of lack of sleep that is hard to imagine before getting to this stage, spending most of the time on career on account of family time and its consequences, all these things that happen to us and we don't pay attention to their huge consequences sometimes until it is too late.
I give a big recommendation to this book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

First published 1936, 1037 pages
The book tells a bigger than life love story with the American civil war in the background. Scarlett O’Hara is the 16 years old daughter of a successful planter in Georgia. Though the first words of the book state that she is not beautiful, seems like every man in her radius thinks differently. She is spoiled, surrounded by “beaux” (what a cute word for suitors) and her biggest problem is how to make her favorite beau fall for her without losing her current admirers. She lives the quiet, calm and rich life of an ante-bellum planter, lazy days full of fun. (That is, if you are white of course, someone has to work long hours under the sun and take care of the huge areas filled with cotton, to enable these luxurious life). This way of life cannot last long, and everything changes when the civil war starts. Scarlett and the other characters have to face circumstances they never imagined they’ll have to face before. Much of the book focuses on the way different people handle this abrupt change in the way of life. Who cynically uses it for profit. Who faces the changes fiercely, determined not only to survive them but also to get out of these hard times with the wealth and security that were lost, no matter what moral principles are abandoned. Who endures the changes nobly, with courage and determination, but without losing self, even if there is a price to pay. And who just can’t handle the change and face the new reality.
The historical part is described with details and comes to life. It is told from the point of view of the south, and that makes it an important document, because history is usually told by the winning side. Mitchell, an Atlanta native, had aunts that remembered the civil war. It is fascinating to read about the events from the south point of view, though it could be revolting at times. It was hard to read the point of view stating the slavery is justified, and that black people are better as slaves than as free people, because of their supposed limitations. I think it is important to read this point of view, because this is one of this places in history where one must ask oneself “what were they thinking?” and it is important to get the answer, hard as it is to read it.
But above all, like I wrote at the beginning, it is a huge love story. Though I am sure there isn’t anyone who hasn’t read the book or at least watched the movie, I will not spoil for those who managed to avoid both the book and the movie, and won’t go into details. I’ll just say in general that the book deals with the questions of what is love? Do we have to be similar to those we love or is it the mystery and the distance that fuel real love? Do we only love what we can’t get and what would happen when we do get it? Can the love of the body and the love of the mind be separated? I do not agree to all the answers the book gives to these questions, but it is fascinating and heart-touching to read it.
The book has lots of hard and heart breaking moment, both in the historical events and their consequences for the characters and also in the personal love and family stories. I cannot say it is a happy or a heart-lifting book. I usually prefer my books a little more optimistic, but it is so well written, and the characters so well developed, change and evolve, and understandable even in their worse behavior, that I still warmly recommend this book to anyone who managed to miss it, or read it a long time ago, perhaps at a younger age when not all aspect of the books can be appreciated.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting To Calm: Cool-headed strategies for parenting tweens and teens By Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.

2009, 304 pages
Before I had kids, I knew I am going to be a perfect parent. My kids will behave wonderfully, they will love each other, they will be very happy, and of course, they will adore me.
Not that things were anything like perfect at any time, but there’s nothing like the teen years to show the huge gap between fantasy and reality.
This book talks about the aspects of raising teens from a scientific point of view. It quotes recent studies about the structure and development of the brain, and explains the processes that cause our teens to behave the way they do. It helps somewhat to know that it’s all in the neurological system in their brain, and not because the parents did something wrong. It helps staying calm and reasonable while dealing with very difficult situation, and by the book, staying calm, reasonable and the adult in the room, is the key to handling these situations, surviving the teen years, and helping the teens to learn and grow from these tough situations, and become adults, with the full meaning of the word.
One thing puzzled me with this explanation. Until about a century ago girls used to get married and have kids when they were teens. How could they do things so complicated and demanding like raising babies and handle a household if their brain was undergoing these massive changes and could not fully function? I wonder if maybe, if forced by circumstances, teen can function rationally and responsibly. I know of some teens who didn’t have the luxury of a “normal” house with adult loving parents they could scream at that they hate them and blame them for ruining their lives, and they had no choice but to behave responsibly. I wonder if the fact that teens behave like brain science claims they should behave, mean that they were given the luxury of supportive home and adult responsible parents, or maybe more challenging circumstances is what teens need to overcome the biological difficulties and behave responsibly. Not that anyone would want to give his teen challenging circumstances in purpose.
In addition to scientific explanations, the book talks about common issues concerning teens, with suggested techniques and method for handling them. It gives examples to both ineffective conversations and effective conversations, with what is said, and what goes on underneath during the conversation. The “bad” conversations look so convincing and familiar (did they hide a recording device at my house?) and it is very clear why they didn’t work and only worsened the situation. On the other hand, the “good” conversation don’t always look so realistic, sometimes they didn’t seem to work in the real world, and other times it seemed like the parents are expected to be inhuman, with endless patience and ability to stay calm and reasonable in very emotional and tough situations, and I wished the book had some solutions to the human parents too. But all in all, I found this book very enlightening, giving some comfort in understanding what is going on, and gives some very good techniques and advices in handling these situations. I would recommend it to every parent after his bigger child has celebrated his tenth birthday, just to be ready.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Zeitoun - Dave Eggers

2009, 359 pages
In 2005 the hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. After the storm the levies broke and the city, built mostly below sea level, got flooded, in one of the biggest disasters in the US history, with more than a thousand dead and damage of billions. After the storm anarchy ruled the city with group of criminals looting the abandoned houses and businesses. The Bush administration got a lot of criticism for the way it handled the storm and its damages.
The book tells the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant to the US who lives in New Orleans with his wife Cathy, and American who converted to Islam, and their kids. He works as a painting and construction contractor and manages some properties he rents. He decides he cannot leave his business and has to stay in town during the storm. He is not afraid. He is well equipped, his house is high and the second floor will be safe even in the case of a flood, and he already went through some other storms with no problem.
After the flooding he spends his days rowing his second-hand canoe through the city streets, rescuing people and feeding abandoned dogs. His family members around the world see the horrific pictures from the city in the news and urge him to leave town. (His sister that stayed in Syria says: in what kind of country do you leave? You have to come back living in Syria!) Will he survive the chaos in the city?
The book gives a fascinating view from personal experience on the events in the city during this time. It also sheds a light on the life of Muslims in the US, both American born and immigrants from Muslim countries, the Islamic community with its care of each other that could be seen during these hard times, and the attitude from the surrounding and the authorities. The book raises hard questions about dealing with such hard situations, both locally with what happened after the storm in New Orleans and in general with what happened after 9/11 and fighting terror. The question is asked – how much violating human rights is justified when the intent is to protect the public, and what is the personal responsibility of the cops and soldiers executing the commands. I don’t think there is a simple answer to these questions, and the book does not give them, but tells the personal story of the characters of the book.
I think it is very much worth reading.
All income from the book goes to the Zeitoun foundation dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and protect human rights in United States.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy – Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2005, 600 pages
The Girl Who Played with Fire, 2006, 630 pages
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, 2007, 576 pages
These three novels were originally written in Swedish, and were published after the death of the author, Stieg Larsson. They take place in Sweden.
The story follows Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist in his 40s, and Lisbeth Salander, a strange young girl in her 20s with lots of problems. In the first book their ways are crossed during an investigation of an old crime, and in the second and third book the plot focuses on Lisbeth herself, her mysterious and complicated past and her dealing with its shadows that come back to haunt her.
I am not a big fan of thrillers. Usually I am bored of them, and can’t develop and caring about who did what and what happens with the characters. But this series fascinated me. I could not put the books down (after a certain point, more on that later) I was very curious to know what happens next and I was on the edge of my seat at some parts.
I chose to start with the overall impression because when I think about various aspects of the books I have a lot of criticism, so I want to clarify that overall I enjoyed the series a lot. And now for the criticism.
The books, especially the first two, are extremely violent, with description of cruel sexual (and other) violence. I later read that Stieg Larsson was blame-stricken after witnessing a rape and not doing more to help the victim. It may be the reason for the descriptions in the book. I don’t like books with details description of violence. We have enough if it on the news.
The author died before the books were published. It can explain why the editing is lacking. The books are way too long, with long tedious and unnecessary parts that seem to never end. I wrote before that I could not put the books down. This was not true from the beginning. Actually I kept “threatening” that I will stop reading the first book, and only because I was on a flight with no other book to read I kept on reading. Eventually, way ahead into the book, it did catch, and when I got to the connection I bought the second book, to make sure I have it when I finish the next one.
One reason they are so long is because they contain unnecessary parts, scenes that contributes nothing to the plot or to the books in general, like the first part of the second book. I was glad it was cut from the movie.
The books are so long also because they contain detailed description of every detail – everything the characters wear, eat, their houses, including interior decoration and the furniture. Though some details are nice to get the feeling of the place and time, so much of them are tedious and unnecessary. The descriptions include also the technological devices like cell phones and computers, including the exact model of each and the technical specifications, details that become irrelevant almost immediately in our fast paste technology world. Computer technology is a huge part of these books, and my personal computer expert had to smirk at some of them, but I – not an expert but knows enough about computers – did not find any crude mistakes in this area.
Another main problem, in my opinion, is the main character, Mikael. He is probably the “Mary Sue” of the author. Incredibly capable, always finds out what other failed to find for years, moral, always do the right thing, and irresistible to women – almost each woman he sees just has to drag him to bed, and what choice does a good-heart man like him has other than to agree?
On the other hand, I just loved the character of Lisbeth, and my favorite parts are where she appears. Not that her character lacks problems, but overall she won my heart.
This leads to the next problem: the romance in the book. I can’t even call it romance. It was so heartless, so emotionless, all based around sex and maybe some fondness, not more than that. It was so obvious it was written by a man (though there are some beautiful books written by man with very convincing romance and feelings). I was disgusted by the romance in the book and would rather these parts (like many unnecessary parts) stayed out of the book.
So I have a lot of criticism for the book, but the bottom line wins: I enjoyed reading them, could not put them down, and highly recommend them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is the What – Dave Eggers

2006, 475 pages
Valentino Achak Deng was born in a village in south Sudan. When he was a young boy, his village was attacked and destroyed by the northern Arab militia as part of the second Sudanese civil war. Achak had to flee to the forest to save his life. He joins a group of boys, all fleeing for their lives, evading wild animals and soldiers from both sides, reaches a refugee camp in Ethiopia, later moves (or actually flees again for his life) to Kenya, to another refugee camp, Kakuma, where he spends many years, and eventually arrives the US.
Achak, a real person, told his story to the author Dave Eggers, and he wrote this book, where Achak is telling his story. The book starts at present time, when Achak is in his Atlanta apartment, innocently opening the door to a strange woman who asks to use his phone. In the following eventful days, Achak will tell his story to the people he meets, but not in speaking the words. In his head. This is the story he would like to tell them, but he doesn’t, he cannot. He goes back to his childhood in Africa, and to his first days in the US, and so the plot advances in three different times in parallel – his present in the US, his history in the US, and his history as a child in Africa. It is a little confusing at first, especially since he begins by jumping to arbitrary events in his past, but after a certain point he starts to tell his story in order and things start to make sense. From this point on I could not leave the book. It was so fascinating and touching.
Today Sudan is back in the news, with their poll about independence. It is fascinating to go back to the time described in the book and get an inside look at the bloodied events. I was also fascinated by the personal story of Achak. He had to go through so many terrible events as a young child. To see so much evil, the darkest side of human kind that kill and torture or just look at the other side when these things happen. On the other hand, he met amazing people, generous people, people who risked themselves to help the lost kids who had no one else fending for them. I admired the person that came out of him. It wouldn’t be surprising if after all he’s seen as a child he would turn a resentful violent man that only want to grab a gun and revenge all that was done to him and taken away from him. Lots of the other young boys turned out that way, and were killed as young soldiers. But he was different. He avoided joining the rebel army. He knew, with the help of some amazing teachers in the camp, that education is what he needs and what will help him overcome his situation. He had lots of patience, and he needed it, with the many years it took him to leave the camp and arrive to the US. And life in the US weren’t the end of his troubles and misery. He tells, again, about amazing generosity, exceptional people who helped the Sudanese refugees. But also about hardship, racialism, prejudices and kind of problems that sometimes made him and the other Sudanese miss the refugee camp. It seems like the troubles are chasing him, and any kind of hardship and problem finds its way to his life. But he goes on, in a very inspiring way.
The profits from the book are donated to “The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation”, and are used to help other Sudanese, both in Sudan and in the US, the education that helped Achak to get where he is today.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Left Neglected – Lisa Genova

2011, 336 pages.
Sarah is living a hectic life. She is a vice president of a big company, working around the clock, and a mother of three young children. She and her husband, who also works many hours a week and is never really away from his job, are trying to keep up with mortgages and loans, the price of studying at top universities, living at top neighborhood and owning a vacation home. All for the kids, of course. The kids who see their parents only early in the morning, before the unlucky one of them, whose turn it is to give up the pleasure of driving straight to work, takes them to day care and before-school care, and for a short time before they go to sleep, after eating dinner with the nanny who picks them up from school and day care.
Sarah always has to do more than one thing at a time to keep up with all the responsibility she is given. Eating while talking on the phone with one person and emailing another. But while multitasking sitting at her desk is hard, doing it while driving is also dangerous, as she finds out one day, waking up at a hospital with a brain injury.
She suffers from a syndrome called “Left Neglect”. Her brain ignores the left side of everything, including her own body. The book follows her while finding out the full extent and limitation of her situation, the treatment, and the way she and her family cope with the situation. Her new situation brings her mother back to her life, after many years of problematic relationship following a childhood trauma.
I had very high expectations from this book after enjoying so much her first book, “Still Alice”. Unfortunately I didn’t feel she managed to repeat her big achievement.
The first part of the book describes Sarah’s life before the accident. It is hectic and high-paced, and it didn’t feel original, I felt I read so many descriptions of busy mothers trying to balance career and parenting, like “I don’t know how she does it”. I was also so annoyed by Sarah’s choices and behavior I could not enjoy the reading. I just could not sympathize her using her cell phone while driving or leaving the baby in the car with the engine on while bringing the other kids to school. I never considered doing it even for a minute when I was in similar situation so I just couldn’t relate to her doing so.
After the accident, I think Genova did a good job describing how this rare and strange syndrome feel for the patient, but it was also a little tedious. It could be an interesting chapter in a book about interesting brain syndrome, telling a story of a real patient, but as a fictional story it just wasn’t enough.
The last part of the book, Sarah’s coping with reality after releasing from the hospital, did manage to grab my interest. I was even touched at times by the situations and decisions she had to do. But the plot didn’t seem realistic to me. Things worked out , when they did, too smoothly to feel real. The end, though touching, was predictable, and I guessed it long before, and I felt it lost the power it should have had.
All in all, I don’t think it is a bad book, it was quite interesting in spite of its flaws. But if you are expecting another “Still Alice”, you should re-adjust your expectation to prevent from disappointment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

All Clear – Connie Willis

2010, 656 pages

** Spoiler Alert: contains spoiler to the book “Blackout” **

This is the second half of the story that started in the book “Blackout”. We find Polly, Mike and Eileen where we left them at the end of “Blackout”, trapped in London in the middle of the Blitz, their drops back to Oxford of 2060 do not open, and Polly has a deadline, later during the war she visited for another research, and since she cannot be in two places at the same time, she will die if she doesn’t find a way to come back to 2060 before that.
The book follows Polly, Eileen and Mike trying to find a way out, find other historians with research trips to the same time whose drops may work, and coping with living in London during the Blitz. Polly is working at a department store, Eileen is still in touch with the kids that were evacuated from London and now they are back, including the insufferable Alf and Binnie, whom she can’t wait to get rid of, but finds herself saving them again and again, and Mike looking for the little heroes of the war, like he did in Dunkirk and plans to do in Pearl Harbor, and finds out he has to be one, if he wants to get Polly and Eileen out of the trap, as he promised them. And what about Mr. Dunworthy? Polly knows his first priority is the safety of his Historians in Oxford, and she is sure he will do anything to get them back. And Colin, the teenager who is in Love with Poly, in spite of all her efforts to make him forget her, but now she remembers his promise to come and get her if she gets into trouble – where is he? Will he keep his promise, before it’s too late?
We also follow other historians in other times during the war, and find out how they relate to the three main characters trapped in the Blitz. This is Willis’ 4th book with time travel (after “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, “Doomsday Book”, and “Blackout”, and there’s also the short story “Fire Watch”, closely related to this story), and here she is using the full potential of time travel to create scenes that are fascinating and touching. Reminded me a little the use of time travel in “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. I found myself fascinated to the story, cannot leave the book and can’t wait to find out what happened (but also unwilling to end the book at the same time).
I learned so much about England in WWII in the book, especially all these people who “did their bit” away from the front, with so much courage and determination. The descriptions were so vivid I could feel I am really there. These two books (“Blackout” and “All Clear”) were a real pleasure to read, Connie Willis at her best.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spin – Robert Charles Wilson

2005, 368 pages.
One night, sometime around our time or in the very near future, the stars disappeared. Tyler witnessed this event when he was 12 years old with his best friends, Jason and Diane. They were the children of a wealthy businessman living in the big house, gifted kids who were going to a private school. He was the son of their housekeeper, living in a small house on their estate, going to a public school. But they were still best friends, and he even started feeling more than that towards Diane, and it seems like these feelings were mutual. But the night when the stars disappeared, by a phenomenon that was later known as “spin”, changed it all.
First we meet Tyler and Diane years later, in a city in south-east Asia, where Tyler is about to go through some kind of mysterious treatment. As one of the treatment’s side effects he goes back to his memory to when it all started, that night when the stars disappeared, and tells the story of what happened to them – and to the world – since then.
The book is filled with scientific ideas, some of them are quiet interesting and intriguing, but when the mystery was solved, for me it wasn’t like “wow” but more like “oh, well.” (a teenager would probably say “whatEVER".) The human story – of what happened to the main characters – unfortunately didn’t have more success in grabbing my interest. I was never really drawn-in, or touched or moved by what was going on.
It was a nice and easy read, full of interesting scientific ideas, but not more than that for me.
It is a first part of a trilogy, the second book “Axis” was published in 2007 and the third is expected this year, but I don’t feel the urge to go on to the next books in the series.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

2010, 345 pages.
When Rebecca Skloot was 16 years old, she heard about the HeLa cells for the first time. She took a biology class in a community college. Her instructor told the class about the sample of cells that were taken from a woman in the 50s, cancer cells, that became the first cells to grow in the laboratory. These cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years and were involved in countless researches, discoveries and drugs development. He gave the class her full name – Henrietta Lacks – and said she was a black woman.
When Rebecca felt curious and unsatisfied with the knowledge he gave about the woman whose cells are so important to medicine and science, she asked what else he knew about her, but he could not give her any more details.
This incident in the biology class started the process that ended up in this book. Rebecca Skloot worked for ten years on writing this book, combining seeking knowledge about the research involving the HeLa cells, and looking for the descendents of Henrietta and trying to convince them to cooperate with her and tell her what they know about her personal life.
The book combines these three subjects – the personal story of Henrietta until she died of cancer, and the story of her family afterwards; the scientific story about the cells that were taken from her, all the research and discoveries that were made using them, and a fascinating discussion about medicine and ethics, and ownership and royalties of body organs and tissues; and her own story trying to reach out to the family of Henrietta, and her relationship with them, especially with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.
The personal story of Henrietta unfolds a heart breaking story of poverty and hard work of a family who worked the same tobacco fields their ancestors worked as slaves, of kids who dropped out of school before they could finish elementary school to work and help the family, of hunger, of consistent discrimination by skin color in everything including medical treatment. It is hard to believe that these events happened in America not so long ago.
I enjoyed all the parts of the book, both the scientific part including lots of anecdotes about the history of cell science and other subjects discussed in the book. I was touched by the personal story of the family. Skloot tried to understand the means of each character in this sad story without making almost anyone the bad guy. Alongside some of the very sad parts of the story there is always someone who shows compassion and gives some hope. I liked the character of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, that had a very difficult life after her mother died, but always thought about how much her mother suffered instead of her own suffering, who didn’t give up on her brother who suffered maybe even more than her and made life very difficult for everyone around him. I was especially touched by her desperate need to know things she would never know about her mother, like if she was breastfeeding her when she was a baby.
This is not an easy read. I had to concentrate on the scientific parts, and the jumps between the scientific and personal parts didn’t help, but I am very glad I read this book, I learned a lot and it has lots of issues to think about.
A certain amount of the profit from the book goes to a fund for helping the Lackses get the education their parents and grandparents never had the chance to get. Contributions can be made directly to the fund .