Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Takedown Twenty” by Janet Evanovich

Last Friday I ended my work week positively flattened – tired and gloomy. Too many hours in front of the computer, too much data, an important meeting postponed again… My personal black cloud followed me home. 

But guess what? I made a cup of tea and settled on the couch with my bff Janet, and half an hour later, I was laughing. Janet Evanovich can always do it for me! I’ve read all 20 of her Stephanie Plum novels and several from her “between the numbers” series.

OK, so it’s trash, full of stereotypes and tasteless jokes, but sometimes it’s EXACTLY what I want. Stephanie and her now familiar family are eccentric. Her two boyfriends are sexy. Stephanie’s career as a bail bond enforcer brings her up against some very scary villains.

In this 20th Stephanie Plum story, Gramma Mazur (the wildest senior you ever met) is threatened by the evil Uncle Sunny, a relative of one of Stephanie’s boyfriends. Stephanie and her sidekick Lula keep investigating, rescue Gramma and barely escape being buried alive in wet cement. Stephanie survives getting tossed off a bridge into the Delaware River.

Part of the appeal is that all of this takes place in Trenton, NJ. Trenton! I can’t say I “know” Stephanie’s neighborhood (Chambersburg – it’s for real) but I’ve passed through it. I’ve gone to Trenton two or three times a year for (no kidding) thirty years. For work, and once in a while for baseball (the Trenton Thunder, minor league ball at its best).

In terms of the American economy, Trenton is my “indicator city”. If I hear that the economy is improving, I look at Trenton. Does it look different? Is Trenton doing better? No. In all these years, Trenton has not changed. There it is, one step above Camden (I don’t dare go there), two steps above Detroit (glad it’s hundred of miles away).

And there’s Stephanie, setting cars on fire, gobbling pizza, chasing bad guys and taking care of her family. Keep writing, Janet. I need you!



“Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis

My friend of the book lists (see link below) missed an important category – the “I don’t get it” list. (He generously says that such books might belong on the “need to read it again” list.) In the case of “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis, I’m baffled, and not curious enough for a repeat read.

Why DID I read “Till We Have Faces”? It was selected by a discussion group I often attend. I couldn’t get to the group meeting, but decided to read the book anyway.

So what have we got? The book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The god Cupid plays a very minor role. Psyche was human but noble and possibly on her way to being a god. The plot has fairy tale elements – older sister vs younger sister, evil parent sacrifices child (oops, that’s the Bible). For good measure, throw in the conflict between reason and superstition.

The story line is interesting enough – after losing her beautiful, young sister as a sacrificial offering, how does the ugly sister (Orual) gain the skills to assume her father’s crown and reign successfully? The book begins as a rant against the Gods, by whom Orual feels she was terribly wronged.

Toward the end, the plot fades and nothing is left but religious and philosophical ramblings. A myth is deconstructed and subjected to the logic of a very much later generation. I don’t get it…

“My Brief History” by Stephen Hawking

Another autobiography! I wrote about Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beautiful World” on November 18, 2013. Stephen Hawking’s biography is almost the opposite of Sotomayor’s, which is long, detailed and energetic. Hawking’s is spare to the point of terseness, but expresses great satisfaction with many aspects of his unusual life.

Hawking, now aged 71, suffers from ALS disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), which struck him in his early 20s. His long survival with the disease is exceptional – few people live more than 10 years beyond diagnosis. Most of us would consider his current quality of life appallingly limited. He communicates using a device that responds to the twitch of the one muscle (in his face) that he can still control. His paralysis is so complete that he relies on mechanical assistance to breathe. 

But like Sotomayor, Hawking expresses great satisfaction in both his personal life and his work. His work has been the study of theoretical cosmology, the origin and structure of the universe. Cosmology can be considered a subfield of physics and/or astronomy. It’s hard for me to understand “theoretical science”, though I passed a course in Theoretical Chemistry long ago. It’s kind of like mathematics. You sit around and think! In some cases, an experiment can be devised to test a theory.

Hawking has found cosmology to be an exciting and fruitful endeavor. He has worked with some of the most brilliant scientists of our time, and published many scientific books and papers.

Hawking’s popular book for non-scientists, A Brief History of Time, was an unexpected, wildly popular bestseller. He expresses satisfaction that he receives questions from non-scientists that make it clear that they really read the book, and really want to understand it. Writing is very laborious for Hawking. He mentions working at the rate of three words per minute. The amount of effort that went into A Brief History of Time (which was heavily revised and edited to reduce scientific jargon and mathematics) is very impressive.

Hawking also expresses happiness with his personal life. He was married twice, and has two sons and a daughter. He travelled widely and met famous people, and he worked for decades in the field he loved. I wish him well.

“America’s Wars” #2 – “Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” by Jon Krakauer

In 2002, Patrick Tillman, an NFL football player, enlisted in the US Army. He was motivated by the events of September 11, 2001. In 2004, while serving in Afghanistan, he was shot and died. Originally it was announced that he was killed by enemy fire, but later it became clear that his was a “friendly fire” death, presumably accidental. The army’s attempts to “spin” this misfortune were cynical and distressing to his family and friends.

One reason I decided to read this book is that I consider Krakauer a “good writer”. I had read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and parts of Into the Wild. The first of these was particularly compelling, though my sympathy for extreme mountain climbers is limited.

Reading the book about Tillman, I realized Krakauer’s strength is DOCUMENTATION. He pins down detail after detail. Read carefully and you can picture everything. Mostly, he lets facts speak for themselves, though obviously he had a high regard for Tillman and mourns his death. 

In the same book, he reconstructs the convoy incident that led Jessica Lynch to be captured in Iraq. His description is detailed and astounding. Someone made a wrong turn. Eleven soldiers died and six were captured in a nightmare of error and confusion. The words “fog of battle” barely begin to describe it. The injured Lynch was rescued after a week.

As with the death of Pat Tillman, the Army tried to present Lynch as a hero who went down fighting, when the truth was that she was  injured in a vehicle crash and didn’t fire her gun during the incident. The Iraqi military tried to return Lynch to an Army checkpoint in an ambulance, but it was fired upon, so she was taken back to the hospital from which she was subsequently recovered.

Krakauer uses publicly available sources and personal interviews to recreate events that sounded very different in official military statements. Krakauer is better than a good writer – he’s the best nonfiction writer I know. He deals carefully and intelligently with situations that are complicated and important. I’ll continue to read anything he publishes.

I originally read this book in November of 2009.

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.

“America’s Wars” #1 – “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel

This book (published in 2008) starts in 2002 or 2003, when Engel entered Iraq before the war began, intending to wait out the early “shock and awe” stage, which I think he assumed would promptly lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein and regime change. He expected to witness to the most exciting event of the decade.

Engel was (and is) courageous to the point of recklessness. It was no surprise to learn that his marriage ended during his time in Iraq. Engel is a highly credentialed journalist (ABC and NBC) and speaks Arabic. He was working freelance when he decided to enter Iraq and await the invasion.

Engel discusses “war porn”. I think he means images and anecdotes that are true, shocking and add nothing new or significant to anyone’s understanding. The most descriptive word is “gratuitous”. I have encountered that kind of “porn” in other places, even in fiction. I won’t recommend “World Made By Hand” to anyone, despite its interesting plot premise. I threw it in the trash, a very rare fate for any book that passes through my hands.

Engel wrote another book about Iraq and reported as well on Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. In 2012, he and his news crew were kidnapped and held for five days (according to Wikipedia), an experience Engel wrote about in Vanity Fair. I hope he stays alive and keeps writing.

America’s Wars – 2001 to the present

In 2009, I decided that I wanted to understand the wars that have dominated our foreign policy since September 11, 2001. My immediate sense of urgency arose from the death of one of my son’s schoolmates, age 19. Rest in peace, Brad.

I read unsystematically, choosing books that came to hand. Soon I realized how silly I was being – I could earn PhDs in field after field and still not “understand” the Middle East, terrorism and our responses. I would need to study history, religion, languages, political science and so much more. A dozen or so books into this “project”, I began to have war nightmares, and resumed my previous scattered and rather random reading habits.

By good fortune, I did read some excellent works, and I will share them here. Watch for posts with “America’s Wars” in the title.

“The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett

I hesitated to START reading this book because Patchett’s Bel Canto had me so entranced I was in danger of burning dinner. And I was right to worry – “The Magician’s Assistant” also completely held my attention. I read it in three days. Sorry, I can’t tell you how long it is. I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magician’s Assistant” has two settings, sunny Los Angeles and windswept, winter Nebraska. The protagonist, a bereaved woman in her 40s, travels to meet “relatives” by marriage whose existence had been unknown to her. Where another author might use flashbacks, Patchett uses dreams – lucid dreams of a magical quality. Not every author could make this work.

I thought this book might, like Bel Canto, end tragically, but it doesn’t. 

Patchett creates characters that surprise and interest me. The protagonist’s parents, for example, are almost too good to be true, so their daughter has to stretch to understand the dysfunctions and misfortunes of other peoples’ lives. Her ability to do so seems to be rooted in the great love she feels for her close companions.

I won’t get into plot here. Read and enjoy!


Great Novels – More Unscientific Criteria

Having read the opinion that first person novels are particularly compelling, I’ve pondered what else might get a novel into the “great” category. Fortunately, I just read one which is, if not “great”, at least really good. I’ll post about it shortly.

Try this on for size: a great novel may get into your dreams. Seriously, that happened to me two nights ago! I caught myself dreaming about the novel mentioned above, when I was about 25% into it! My dream had more to do with words than visual images. 

Has this happened before? The first time I read Tolkien, I powered through all four books (The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) in about a month. I was fifteen. It was summer, and there was nothing to stop me from reading as much as I wanted. I read outdoors. I read in the early hours of morning. I dreamed about all those adventures, and I fell in love with Aragorn.

I seldom dream about my own real life “dramas” – childbirth, for instance, or the deaths of loved ones. So if a book gets into my dreams, it must be exceptional.

Here’s another indicator of a really fine book, cribbed from Thomas Foster, who wrote How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor, (books well worth your attention.) Foster says the first sentence of a novel has to grab you. So now I read first sentences critically. (Apologies to T Foster if I got this wrong… possibly I read this somewhere else. Read his books anyway.)

And finally (I won’t attempt to attribute this) there’s the “start over” criterion. If, when you finish a book, you just want to turn it over and dive in again, then it is truly excellent. 

Can you add to this discussion? Comments welcome!