23-26 moving right along

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
I just can't resist the lure of larger-than-life industrialists, and their impulsive attempts at world domination. I never had the chance to read much about the life of Henry Ford, and am glad I picked up this title. Grandin's book does a wonderful job of not only explaining the history of the Fordlandia experiment in Brazil, but also telling the reader a bit more about the sort of man Henry Ford was, and the different forces that drove him to make some very radical decisions with his empire. The reader is left with a picture of a man full on contradictions - at once jerking away from his anti-Semitic views and half-crazed loathing of farm animals, while being drawn to his desire for absolute efficiency and economy with resources. The same man that introduced a fair living wage for workers in an era of poverty was also the man who sent out brutal enforcers to squash dissent and prevent workers from unionizing. Obsessed with the idea that good country living and manual labor outdoors was the key to a healthy existence, Ford was regardless instrumental with the boom in urban sprawl and industrialized life (a fact he never seemed to acknowledge). This book is mainly about the attempt to move Detroit industry into the jungle, and to introduce assembly-line-style efficiency to a population of workers used to seasonal, subsistence living - but these topics can't be approached without a knowledge of the man who thought they could become a reality.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
Those of you who read the wonderful Devil in the White City will be familiar with Erik Larson's formula of alternating between two stories: murder and creation. In Thunderstruck, the author chronicles the invention of wireless radio technology, focusing on the life and activities of Gugliemo Marconi. Through his tale of invention through trial and error, Larson follows the unhappy marriage of Hawley Crippen and the failed entertainer, Belle Elmore. I don't want to give too much away, but when things turn out unhappily for Ms. Elmore, Marconi's struggling new technology gets a trial by fire in front of what was, most likely, the first truly international audience in history.

Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace
Baseball, a woman in a man's game, the Roaring 20s in NYC - what's not to love? Diamond Ruby is loosely based on the true story of a woman who was able to out pitch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in exhibition play, and the resulting permanent ban of women from the game of baseball. Though this book indulges in a great tale of 'what if?' it remains believable. Fans of the game will relish descriptions of how the game used to be, while those who are just interested in the time period will appreciate the pop culture references and allusions to different historical events. I appreciate Wallace's style, and his ability to weave in different themes without making the book feel like a heavy-handed history lecture.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Before going to SE Asia, I was told by many people that this is the quintessential Vietnam book; while I never got the chance to read it before I left, I knew I had to get around to it sometime. I must say that much of the Vietnam of Greene's time was gone by the time I walked the street's of Saigon, but I caught glimpses here and there of what has endured. Gone are the bombings, raids, soldiers, and much of the non-motorized vehicles - but still strongly-present are the street kitchens, thronging streets, and decaying colonial architecture (albeit nestled in pockets among the boom of new construction). I was attracted to Greene's narrative style - fusing humor, sarcasm, harsh reality, and a dose of social commentary (though thankfully not in excess); this was the first of his novels that I have read, and I am sure I will go on to read more.


20-22 in Brief

Greyhound -Steffan Piper

I devoured this book in a matter of two days; this book had me at magnetic cassette tape cover. Piper's tale is of an emotionally neglected pre-teen boy, traveling the country solo (to the shock of all that meet him) on a Greyhound bus. Along the way, the boy meets a cast on characters that both help remind the reader of the general kindness of their fellow man, but also caution them to be wary of the occasional devious nut job. This book left me wanting to follow the boy's story past the end of his journey, partially because I was interested in his personality, but mainly because I enjoyed the writer's narrative style. I will be looking out for further novels by this author.

Away: A Novel - Amy Bloom

Eastern European immigrant woman flees horrific massacre in the old country to the United States, only to hump her way (in the military and carnal sense) across North America in an attempt to return to Eastern Europe. Hated it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon - David Grann

I love good travel writing; I love a well-presented book on history, anthropology, or archaeology; and I love a good biography - this was all that and more. This is the first book since I fell in love with The White Rock (Hugh Thomson) that managed to combine all these interests.


Reads 17-19

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

This one was selected for my work's book discussion group, though I had wanted to read it for a while due to its popularity. Not really a challenging read, but a very engaging one. I felt that a lot of research and time went into figuring out how to portray the different households, events, and interpersonal dynamics that were present in the racially-charged environment of the book. I can see why this book has gained such popularity, because it makes the difficult topics a bit more accessible. I think for people who actually lived through this time period, it might be an interesting take on what they experienced (in particular the idea that many people may have been largely unaware of the Civil Rights Movement's major events because of a lack of access to mass media, and a lack of coverage, or biased regional coverage).

The Little Golden Calf - Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov

Dan recommended this title for me, after hearing friends of his talk about it - he knew I like Russian lit. The thing that kept striking me was how I kept forgetting the age of the book; the language, subject matter, and the flow of it seemed like a more current piece. The Calf tells the story of a band of drifter con artists who set out to bilk an underground millionaire (in the early days of the revolution and the purges, showing you had too much cash wasn't a great idea) out a a portion of his fortune. I don't want to give too much away, but it was an entertaining ride that took me through the groups successes and failures. The copy I acquired through the Chicago Public Library had both the ending that was given to the book, and the original ending that went with the story when it was published in chapters in a magazine; I'm not really sure which one I prefer - they both have their strong points. The book ending seems to be more true to the tone of the rest of the story; the magazine ending seems to be a bit too neat and abrupt.

The Night Birds - Thomas Maltman

This was a case of judging a book by its cover - someone had dropped it in the returns slot at work, and it caught my eye. This book was one of those nice finds that keeps me up late at night, saying 'ok, just one more chapter before I sleep.' Maltman, inspired by old news clippings he had come across upon moving to Minnesota, pieced together a very compelling story about lives affected by the Dakota Conflicts that took place in the Upper Great Plains area during the Civil War. This very bloody, and largely forgotten piece of American and Native American history, was given a respectably unbiased treatment by the author when discussing the atrocities and generosities of the actors on both sides of the conflict. I appreciated that the individuals in the story were, for the most part, believable, rather than being the caricatures of good and evil one might expect to find in a novel where the subject matter is so emotionally charged. I would like to look into more work by the author because I feel like his writing involved a great deal of research and care - in addition to the details, his style and language appealed greatly to me.


Reads 11-16

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

This book was sort of a required read, though I was curious about it due to the good reviews it was given. Brooklyn was selected as this summer's One Book, One Chicago title by the city, so I decided to make it the book for my work's dicsussion group. Well, this meeting will be interesting, because I don't really have much to say about it. It was a nicely written tale of immigrant life in the early 20th century, in New York. The heroine worked through the challenges and joys of being a lone female, away from her home and kin, only to screw things up for herself in a colossal (though not fatal) way for herself in the end. Part of me wants to write her off as being a big dummy, but her errors are understandable, considering her age and newly found freedoms and feelings - another part of me didn't want to call her anything because she wasn't a compelling enough figure to me to elicit an emotional response.

Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World

This book was given to me in a book exchange, and made for a wonderfully engaging short read for a flight. This memoir relays a first-hand account given by one Catalina de Erauso, a Basque woman who escaped a convent, began living as a man, and eventually became a soldier for Spain in the conquest of Peru and Chile. While the book's preface goes into some detail discussing transvestism throughout history, and citing passages in Erauso's memoir to support her probable preference for the fairer sex, her own words stick mainly to the facts of her journey and leave us to speculate about her deeper motivations. This was a pretty fascinating read into the life and mind of an individual who lead an extraordinary life in extraordinary times.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

If anything, Azar Mafisi's memoir about her life in, and eventual departure from, Iran, showed me that I have much ground to make up in terms of reading my 'great books.' Aside from relating her hardships and joys in her home country during a very difficult era, Mafisi's discussion of the individual selected works are wonderfully in-depth and heartfelt. One can tell that Mafisi truly loves her chosen subject matter (she is a professor of literature and international studies), and feels deeply the works she explores with her students. This is moving read for both lovers of literature, and those interested in Middle Eastern affairs.

City of Thieves: A Novel - David Benioff

I judged this book by it's cover, deciding to read it when it caught my eye on the returns cart at work. This was a quick read, good for a flight or a couple evenings at home. COT dealt with a series of events (fictional) that occurred during the siege of Leningrad during WW2. The narrative floated in and out of humor, horror, hope, and bravado (often combining many of the above) with the fluidity one might expect when told from the vantage point of a late teen/early 20s young man, left behind by his family with aspirations to guard his city from intruders. I won't give too much away, but this book was one part survivor story, one part 'how I met your grandmother,' one part great escape novel, and one part coming of age at a time of crisis story.

Dead in the Family - Charlaine Harris
The latest installment in the Sookie Stackhouse series (TrueBlood), preordered and delivered on the release date for all my nerdy pleasure, left me pretty unsatisfied. It was like grabbing some guilty pleasure fast food and then realizing you can't taste any of it because you have a head cold; I knew I was reading, but I didn't feel like I was getting anything of interest out of the book. I know the Sookie books aren't really marvels of literature, but usually they're the kind of read I blow through and enjoy because of the action and amusing characters that are constantly evolving. This book just kind of left me hanging. I got the feeling that everything that happened was just a setup for a much more interesting followup book, or a handful of slightly less dull followups if Ms. Harris decides to stretch the things she's developing out further by tying up each loose end in a separate book. Unfortunately, I think I'll probably have to wait another year until the next release to find out; kind of stinks when something you've looked forward to doesn't pan out.

Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner

I thought this was a beautifully-written book that traveled fluidly between poetry, prose, fiction, and what could be considered historical fiction. For some reason I seem to be returning to the topic of Russia often in my reads (perhaps it's all the cold, gray weather). This quirky little book had much to offer in terms of unique plot, vivid characters, and an unexpected ending. For someone who tends to lean towards less avant-garde works of fiction, I can say that I was genuinely surprised that I got so into a work like this that tended to be so unpredictable and (as the title would indicate) dreamlike. I would definitely seek out more of Ms. Ochsner's work in the future - I hope that she continues to write outside her usual short story genre.


"You might still see it in the desert..."

Selected photos from my trip to see Audrey in Phoenix, AZ, last weekend.

Many are from the Desert Botanical Garden - a amazing place, absolutely shouting out loud with colors, textures, and wonderful fragrances. I would love to go there again.


Reader's Digest - 2010 books 7-10

I've done a lot of reading since I last updated my reading (b)log, so I thought I'd do a quick catch up.

I blew through books 2 and 3 in the Alexander McCall Smith No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. Books 2 and 3, entitled Tears of the Giraffe, and Morality for Beautiful Girls, respectively, were the laid back but well-written reads I expected them to be. The only issue I have with this series, and most series, to be honest, is the need to repeat certain language and points in every book. This feature of the series novel reminds me of the television drama, where you are forced to see the 'Last time on____' bit in the beginning. The repetition gets a bit old, but I understand that it is somewhat needed in order to inform and hook readers who may be picking up a series in the middle. My annoyance with this, however, it minimal, and in no way discourages me from continuing to read these books - they're a nice compliment to more challenging reads.

My big read the last month was Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes.

I took my time with this book because it was chocked full of information, and wonderful footnotes. Age of Wonder chronicles the period of Romantic scientific discovery, spanning from Joseph Banks's explorations of Tahiti, to the first human flight in balloons, to the revolutionizing of astronomy by the Herschels and their vastly improved telescopes, all the way on to Davy changing (almost inventing) the role of the career scientist with his activities in chemistry research. The book's timeline is roughly bound together by tying the careers of several prominent European (though mainly UK) scientists to the life and work of Banks with the Royal Society from the late 18th to early 19th century. This fascinating read sets the stage for readers to conduct further readings into the influences of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries by illustrating how the Romantic generation prepared the world to the further scientific revolutions to come.
What struck me most about this book was how rapidly the world was turned upside down by things we now take for granted: flight, harnessing electricity, the discovery of fundamental elements and the dispelling of the idea of 4 essential elemental forces in the world, toying with concepts of human energy/soul/reanimation. This petri dish of inquiring minds not only brought forth the Darwins, it also created the Shelleys and their Frankensteins. Scientific concepts we now take for granted were once exciting, bold, and, very often, the subject of much fear. This is an accessible (though a bit long) read for the lay; not at all full of jargon. I definitely would recommend.

The final book I finished for this installment was Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. I can't say I formed a definite opinion of this book. It was engaging enough that I blew through it in a day, but I can't say if I liked or disliked it. It was just a decent quick read. The premise is the telling of a series of events that took place in the rural south in post World War Two America from various different characters' view points. This was a well-written piece, but sadly a bit predictable, considering the subject matter. I went in expecting to be shocked and a little depressed, and it did happen, despite the author's attempt to make some of the ending a bit more positive.

Now, on to the next!

Overheard in the Library

This phone call just occurred behind me in the computer lab:

Him: Hey sweetheart
Him: What's that? You want to kiss me?
(me getting ready to crack down on some phone nookie)
Him: You went Poo Poo!? In the Potty!?
Him: OOOOh that's great! That's the best news I've heard all day!

Totally cute and funny at the same time.


Book 6 - The Good Soldiers - David Finkel

I chose this book for my library's book discussion group because there is a heavy military focus among the club's members, and because the book had been getting great reviews. This was pretty far outside the scope of my normal interests, so I appreciated the challenge of expanding my reading repertoire. The Good Soldiers does a wonderful job of profiling the soldiers in a very impartial, but at the same time analytical way - not taking any sort of stance (hard to do in war writing, especially in a controversial war such as Iraq), but also not flinching away from hard truths.
This book is at times uplifting, punishing, informative, and infuriating, either individually as you read the different episodes, or as the overall vibe that you get when reflecting on the work as a whole. I think that everyone should give it a try; one thing it really drove home is how little Americans know about what is going on in Iraq. It's rather disturbing how the war in Iraq has become a very silent and almost invisible conflict due to a very sad lack of news coverage - this book puts things into perspective and acts very effectively as a wake up call. What is seen on TV aren't stats and events - they are human lives and futures. Have a read - reacquaint yourself with what is going on with our troops and the people they have been sent to fight, assist, and try to understand (no small task, as we've seen). Regardless of your thoughts on the war, this book is a very informative read.


Small Change

I guess March needs to be the month of small changes rather than sweeping reform. I already know what I should be doing, now I need to tweak my lifestyle to the point where I am actually doing those things. It seems silly, and a little sad, that I need to make more of an effort to get out of my desk chair during my work day, but it's now more than obvious how bad my sedentary profession is on my long-term health goals. So now it's stairs whenever possible - and yes that means going four floors, not just the one floor trips - and visiting people's offices rather than calling them. It means getting off my bus a stop early to go an extra couple blocks.

This month also means really keeping an eye on balancing what I eat. For the longest time I've been aware that I don't really eat horrendous things, but I need to do better eating a good balance of the healthy things I tend to seek out. This also means committing to introducing more protein in my diet. I have cut out the caffeine, and really have shit for energy - now that my body isn't getting 'energy' from false sources like sugar and caffeine, I need to be more conscious of what I'm doing to get the fuel I need.

Finally, as one big step, I have committed to three races for this year (so far, we'll see): two shorties and one long. First up is the Mother's Day Breast Cancer Network of Strength event with Karen, Andrew, and Dan. Donations are most welcome, for this and my other fund raising event, the Rock n' Roll Half Marathon. I'll be running as part of Team PAWS to raise money and awareness for Chicago's homeless dog and cat populations. The non-get-your-credit-card-out race that I'm doing, with Dan, is the Warrior Dash, which sounds like all kinds of fun.

So, for now it's stand at attention, and get those nightly (at least when there isn't hockey) fitness runs in to take off the 'I'm lazy' weight I put on since my last half marathon. After that, it'll be time to start training for real.


How incredibly cute

is my new niece?

Apparently her daddy stinks :D


2010 Books 3, 4, and 5 - Vacation Reads

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
I took a gamble on this book because it got great reviews; I read as little as possible about the plot because I like surprises. I am glad I took the chance, because this read pushed me into territory I would not have chosen for myself had I known all the details. I don't want to give away too much about what makes this book really unique, but Mitchell really proves himself to be a very creative and versatile scribe. There were times when I would begin a new chapter and would find the change in tone so jarring that I was tempted to skip over passages, but I found that any distaste that I felt for style was overcome by the compelling plot. This one is a definitely plus.

44 Scotland Street - Alexander McCall Smith
I picked this one up due to the popularity of this author and his various series. 44 Scotland Street sweeps you up into a world of mini plots, somewhat interrelated, that remind me of a literary version of Seinfeld. While this wouldn't be my first choice in reading material, it really scratched my itch for a lightweight beach read from a genre other than vampire fiction. It wasn't the best thing I've read, but it wasn't so bad that I would cross off the possibility of picking up the next book in this particular series.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
Same motivation for reading this one as I had for 44 Scotland Street - I wanted to see what the buzz was all about. I found this to be a much more enjoyable read than 44, and have actually picked up the second book in the series to continue on. I like the very vivid sensual information about the towns, countryside, and individuals involved in the stories. While this is a book about a detective, it doesn't follow the usual pattern of suspense, violence, sex, and action. That may sound boring, but I find the style of this book a relief from the cliche - it's full of sentiment, humor, and the gentle pride and wisdom of its main players, while at the same time keeping the reader engaged in figuring out the individual cases.

Of the three books read on my trip, I think I have definitely been inspired to read more of David Mitchell's work, and McCall Smith's further detective series installments.




Returned safely from a great trip to Saba. Went directly to the hospital to see my brand new niece, who decided early yesterday that she'd had enough of the womb and wanted to arrive over a month early. She looks wonderful and seems to be in good health - it's going to take some time to wrap my head around being an aunt, but I know I'm going to enjoy the process. For those keeping baby stats - Lucille Rose is 5lbs 3oz - not sure what her length is, but I do know she has some crazy long fingers! I know there will be pictures up in here soon enough - I was kicking myself during the visit for leaving my camera packed in the car with our carry-ons.

Now to grab a power nap so I can actually feel human while trying to visit people later tonight.


2010 Book 2 - West with the Night - Beryl Markham

Where was Beryl Markham when I was growing up? As a young tomboy, I looked up to Katherine Hepburn for her ballzy though feminine ways, and always wondered why there weren't more women around who were like her, and, as an extension, like me (or at least the way I saw myself).
I was given West with the Night by a coworker, who thought I would enjoy the work - apparently he recommends it to just about everyone he knows. After finishing the piece, I can see why. Markham's prose flows smoothly over her accounts of her less-than-conventional upbringing in East Africa; she makes boar hunts, horse training, campfire congresses, and solo flights over uncharted swamps that could be smelled from a thousand feet become poetic. From her words, you can tell that Markham's relationship with Africa was a love affair - each anecdote was brought as vividly into my mind as the memories must have been in her own when she set them to paper.
From here, I am paying forward the favor done for me by my coworker by advising anyone and everyone to read this book. When you're done, I am fairly sure you will do exactly what I did, and seek out more information about the lively individuals she acted as biographer for in miniature, and the cities and towns she praised or condemned.
Book number two for the year has also been a big thumbs up - I hope the trend continues.


2010 Book 1 - Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Some people are doing 365 photos for 2010 - well, I missed the boat on that one. Instead, I think I will make an effort to log the books I read this year, and to explain, briefly, why I did or did not like them.

Zeitoun is the true story of what happened to one man of Syrian origins in New Orleans after Katrina. My first impression, sad to say, was judging the book by its cover. I have to admit that even before I heard the favorable reviews, I was drawn to the art work and texture of the book's cover. Zeitoun is a lovely hardcover edition (not sure how the softcover will come out) graced by very attractive, almost wood block printing stylized artwork.
Moving on past the aesthetics, one is introduced to the protagonist, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, an American citizen who was born and raised on the island town of Jableh, Syria. Zeitoun, as he is known about New Orleans, is an industrious entrepreneur who owns and operates his own painting and contracting company with his American-born wife, Kathy; together the couple have four children. As the narrative progresses, you get to know the Zeitoun family as a close-knit one, bound together by love, faith, and hard work.
Dave Eggers's writing captures the growing tension, and the wavering between skepticism and fear the Zeitoun family must have felt in the hours leading up to the evacuation and arrival of Katrina. When the time to decide came, Kathy departed from New Orleans with the children and the dog, while her husband remained to care for the couple's various rental and commercial properties. Description of the storm itself is patchy and disinterested - a reflection of the reality that Zeitoun's area was not severely impacted by the storm itself, but by the aftermath of the levees breaking. In reality, Zeitoun slept through most of the main event. What follows the departure of Katrina is a description of a surreal waterworld of abandoned pets, abandoned homes, abandoned humans, and, occasionally, the abandonment of all sense of humanity.
I don't want to spoil the rest, but I will put this book in my 'yes' pile, and encourage my friends to read on.


White Out

The title is self-explanatory I guess. Today we have heavy heavy snows falling in the city, making everything lovely, and everyone slow. My commute was akin to trying to run on a sandy beach, with my incredibly heavy snow boots on, and the 3+ inches of snow to slog through. Amazingly enough, I managed to beat the bus on the mile walk to the el stop; the people of Chicago were more diligent in their sidewalk shoveling than the plows were in clearing the surface roads, so apparently I had an easier time than the motorists.
As a result of the city's slowdown, things are quiet in the library today, which plays a bit part in why I am blogging. With some hope, I may be able to catch up on my 'to do' list here if things remain calm - hopefully in writing this, I haven't managed to jinx myself.