Sunday, January 31, 2010

Shutter Island

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Although this is the first book by Lehane I've read (a co-worker claims it's his best), it's clear he has a knack for mind twisters that translate to the big screen (i.e. Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and now Shutter Island). This novel pulled me in right from the start with its vivid descriptions of the mental patients and their afflicitions that occupy the hospital on Shutter Island. Lehane is a talented writer and he makes Teddy a very likeable protagonist, so much so that I kept reading to make sure he escaped the island. The plot twist is done very well, and the ending is such that I still need to think about what happened and how Lehane was able to pull that off. That's a mark of a truly great novel, one that leaves you thinking long after you've finished reading. I'm eager to see the movie to see how what Martin Scorcese was able to do with the story.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Angry Conversations with God

Angry Conversations with God: a Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir by Susan Isaacs

Ahhh, back to a funny memoir! Isaacs is a comedian so it makes sense that she's created a memoir of her struggle for both career and love success from her teens to her 40s that actually generates laughs. While being a part of the creative entertainment industry circles in both LA and New York, she's had struggles with her relationship with God. That's why she goes to a therapist and tells him she needs marriage counseling--God being her marriage partner. Mixed in with tales of the ups and downs of her life, she includes "snarky" dialogue between her and "God," and between her and the spiritual therapist. It's truly funny and heart-warming at the same time.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Us: Americans Talk about Love, edited by John Bowe

My most favorite subject of all is that which is written about more than anything: Love. It's been written in seemingly every way it can be written so I'm always excited for a new take. And considering this book includes real stories from every day Americans on "the person whom (they) have loved the most," they are all new stories. And they are all wonderful! The stories are arranged by the amount of time it's been since each person realized they were in love so we see everything from teenagers experiencing the high school dating scene to couples who have been married for decades, giving insight as to what makes love last. The stories are not all happy, in fact many will make you cry. But that's why it was so realistic... the oral historians who collected these stories captured it all and I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true love stories.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Push by Sapphire

Well, I was prepared to hate this book because the voice of the near illiterate 16-year-old Precious Jones is so hard to deal with. However, I found myself zipping through the final pages (and it didn't take too long since the book is less than 150 pages in length) as Precious became stronger and more educated and therefore someone I wanted to root for and ensure that she comes out ahead in the end. As most people probably know by now, since the huge movie hit Precious has been making headlines lately, Push is the story of a teenage girl living in Harlem who births two children by her father and deals with a very abusive mother. When she starts at alternative school, Precious meets a dedicated teacher who helps liberate her by giving her education and compassion. Besides the poor grammar (because it was written in Precious' voice), most of this was hard to read because of the sad content. I have a feeling the movie is probably even more difficult to watch--I can't imagine most of the scenes playing out on the big screen. It's just horrific.

Monday, January 25, 2010


enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle-Pointer by Jessica Berger Gross

A quick look at the author photo and the author's own admission that she is currently a size 4 made the premise of this book hard to latch on to. Gross apparently has struggled with her weight her entire life, but when she learns the basic principles of yoga while studying abroad in Nepal as an undergraduate and consequently loses 40 pounds, she claims that her life is forever changed. I thought the book would be more about yoga, but the majority focuses on healthy eating (including the merits of being a vegetarian!) and she includes some of her tried and true recipes. She does include photos and instructions for several core yoga poses and she shares a bit of the philosophy behind yoga, focusing on how the meditation and self-awareness of the practice can help create a happier and healthier life. Frankly, it was a fairly boring book about a woman losing weight in my opinion. And looking at her tiny frame in that photo, I'm still skeptical that she ever weighed 40 pounds more than that!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Noonday Demon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Well, this is not light reading, but it is interesting and packed with information. Solomon includes glimpses of his own life with Depression, but he also shares pieces of hundreds of interviews with others who suffer from the illness, as well as doctors and psychologists who work with depressive patients. He covers everything from the history of the disease to what is being done in the political sphere to help mental illness. As I was reading, I was struck by the clarity of Solomon's prose. At 571 pages, not one word seems superfluous. This is not for the faint of heart or the casual psychology scholars. For those who have a real interest in the topic, I couldn't recommend a textbook any more.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project: or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

Well, well, well--it's another gimmicky memoir about trying something new for one year! For Rubin the goal is happiness. For all its contrived sweetness, though, much of the book was quite interesting because Rubin included her own research on happiness. Little insights like whether or not money can buy happiness keep it interesting, and her anecdotes are some times funny. It was a little hard to take her seriously when she (admittedly) has a pretty great life with a loving husband, two kids, a nice apartment in Manhattan (which means she obviously has money), a close-knit family, and a career as a writer (seriously, she talks about quitting a career in law for a career in writing as if it's perfectly normal to pursue writing as a career). However, in a way that made it all the more interesting to see how a seemingly happy person can actually create a life even more fulfilled. She encourages everyone to start their own "happiness project," and provides some tools on getting started.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Have a Little Faith

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom

Yes, it's surprising that I picked up Mitch Albom's latest because I thought Tuesdays with Morrie was too cheesy and not at all sincere and The Five People You Meet in Heaven was, well, boring. The premise for this book intrigued me and it's being discussed a lot at my church so I gave it a "try." And three hours later, I've plowed through the entire book and ended up crying legitimate tears at the end, and I actually believe Albom was crying his own tears. It's a beautiful, completely moving story about a rabbi with a 60-year career in the synagogue and a Christian preacher who creates a church in the most impoverished area of downtown Detroit after a life of crime and breaking every one of the Ten Commandments. Albert Lewis (aka The Reb), the Rabbi, was likeable from start to finish and his stories of tolerance and hope and love were inspirational, not totally hokey as I'd feared. Henry Covington, a man who essentially grew up in the streets of rough Brooklyn and spent time in prison, is much harder to warm up to. However, as Albom moves the story along and we see how Covington strives to turn his life around, he is redeemed in my heart and it gives hope that we call can find the way to a "good" life. Through it all, the story-teller as well as the spiritual leaders stress that it doesn't matter what your religion is or how you practice. It's just that you "Have a little faith." But as The Reb tells Albom and both the strong men in this story show, "Faith is about doing. You are how you act, not just how you believe."

Beautiful, beautiful story that I would recommend to anyone who needs a pick me up and renewed faith in the human spirit.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nanny Returns

Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

I loved Nanny Diaries. I loved it so much it's one of my favorite chicklit books of all time. But the authors let me down with their follow-up, Citizen Girl, and I'm even more let down by the Nanny sequel, Nanny Returns. It's a boring repeat of Nanny Diaries, quite frankly, with older kids and HH (Harvard Hottie) the husband now instead of the elusive love interest. The commentary on New York's UES ladies who lunch was still funny, but there was less of that in this book. All the drama swirling around Nan was far-fetched and ridiculous at times and I read quickly just to see if the ending would make up for the rest of the book. It didn't.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Living Oprah

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant

Another formulaic memoir with potential that failed to excite me in any way. Okrant decides to live for one year as Oprah advises in her magazine, on her web site, and of course on her TV show to see what it's like to live "your best life" (a term Oprah likes to use). Each chapter is a month of 2008 and includes a tally of the time and monetary costs of everything she does (i.e. purchasing the magazine, buying products the Queen of Talk endorses on the show, etc) which is interesting to see, but the commentary on the month is really not interesting. Okrant is a yoga teacher in grad school with a loving husband and close friendships so it would seem she's already living a good life and (I don't want to spoil anything so I'll remain mum) we see rather or not following Oprah's advice really enhances her life. I think I was really hoping to hear more of Oprah's advice and what worked, but she doesn't really talk a whole lot about how the advice helps her believe it or not. It's more just about how it consumes her life. Eh, it's interesting to try something new for a year, but following Oprah's advice didn't really seem all that interesting by Okrant's account.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Wow, wow, wow. I could not put this book down! Moore's prose is absolutely beautiful and the stories in this novel are as familiar as they are devastating. The protagonist, Tassie Keltjin, is a college student when 9/11 occurs and the country goes to war with Afghanistan. Although the specifics of the event are not mentioned, the time period serves as an important piece in the stories that all fall together in Tassie's life as a farmer's daughter, a nanny for a rich and mysterious couple, the sister of a confused teenaged boy who decides to join the war, and a lover of a foreign man. Tassie's voice is incredibly interesting because we get two voices--the present Tassie, one who is presumably grown up and perhaps middle-aged and has a new perspective on this time period, and the Tassie from 2001-2002 when life became much more complicated and tragic.

Many of Moore's passages were so powerful, I had to re-read them. And each chapter left me wanting to know more, more, more. One of the best novels I've ever read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
Yet another memoir on depression. Jamison's Unquiet Mind specifically explores her life with manic depression--an illness that hits her at the age of 18. What's unique about Jamison's experience is that she has a PhD in Psychology and she has served as the director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic (while also teaching at the university) and a Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In short, she is researching her own disease and helping others cope with their mood disorders.

Jamison's scientific background shows in this book, and although she is a very good writer and does a great job of describing both her manic and depressive periods, much of the novel reads a bit like a medical journal. I'm not convinced she was able to merge the two together so well (her own knowledge of the illness as well as her experiences with it) and I almost wish she'd stuck with just the science behind it. When she does talk about the current research and breakthroughs on manic depression, it's quite interesting. When she's talking about her experiences, she comes across as a bit narcissistic and unlikable (somehow she has been able to have several great loves in her life while dealing with her moods--with very handsome men--her words, not mine). A must-read for anyone who has dealt with this illness, but probably not of interest to anyone else.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Divine Madness

Divine Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle by Jeffrey A. Kottler
Some might say I've been reading too many stories about mental illness, but I find it fascinating. Kottler's collection includes 10 stories about incredibly fascinating people who suffer(ed) from severe mental illness, but also managed to create many kinds of phenomenal art: Sylvia Plath, Judy Garland, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Charles Mingus, Vaslav Nijinsky, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, and Brian Wilson (the lone living example of madness and creativity seemingly intertwined). Kottler's writing is so engaging that the stories read like perfectly crafted fiction, but it's all real--told here through research that includes studying the subject's own journals and several biographies. I originally thought I'd just read those that interested me most (Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway). Instead, I found myself completely taken into the creative and yet sometimes mad worlds of the other artists.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett
John Gilkey has stolen more than $100,000 worth of rare books in the past 15 years. Ken Sanders, a rare books dealer in Utah, is the former security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the detective who has been obsessively tracking Gilkey for nearly as long as the thief has been stealing. Both are motivated by their love of books and Bartlett does a great job of revealing that drive exploring the world of all bibliophiles. Seeing Gilkey's criminal methods (most of his books were bought with stolen credit card numbers) was eye-opening for me and I shared Sanders' dismay at how little interest the police take in catching rare book thieves. Gilkey has spent quite a bit of time in prison, but by the end of the book it's clear that he's still hungry for more books. Most unsettling for librarians is the little he tells of visiting the San Francisco Public Library. He comes short of talking about stealing any books (though he does admit to taking a map and a few book jackets), but it leads Bartlett to talk a bit about theft at libraries which is as deplorable as any of the other crimes covered in this book.

I was riveted from cover to cover and highly recommend this book to anyone who loves books and/or enjoys a good true crime tale.


Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am one of the millions of people who enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love so I was anxious to read Gilbert's follow-up about her relationship with the man she met in Indonesia. It's quite intriguing in the beginning. Felipe is essentially deported (though Gilbert points out Homeland Security didn't use that word) because of heightened security restrictions. Elizabeth and Felipe had decided they would not get married because each had experienced such heartache with their first marriages and subsequent divorces. Faced with this forced separation and with Felipe simply not allowed in the U.S., they have to decide if their negative views on marriage outweigh their love and desire to be together every day in the same house in the same country. And what follows is a long and boring diatribe with a bit of research (but not much) on the history of marriage and Gilbert's own feelings on the matter. It made me wonder why she didn't just make this book she clearly needs to write--"I hate my ex-husband and this is why." Pieces of that relationship come up here and there, but it's only rage that I see, not reasons on why the relationship failed. In Eat, Pray, Love she was a likable heroine. In Committed, she's a narcissistic curmudgeon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Curse of the Singles Table

The Curse of the Singles Table: A True Story of 1001 Nights Without Sex by Suzanne Schlosberg

Another memoir by a single thirty-something woman about how grueling dating can be--with a happy ending! Schlosberg is funny, though, and is every girl who has been through true heartbreak and near despair when going on date after date with no luck. She hit something interesting when talking about her sister's wedding--seemingly her sister and brother-in-law are the perfect couple, but they share their many problems in a book about their relationship for wedding guests. Schlosberg's family is appalled, but it's a nice lesson for all--there is no perfect couple. I just wish she might have focused more on that part of the story instead of going back for too many bad date stories. It dragged a bit at the end.

Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression

Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton

Brampton is a successful journalist in the UK--she launched Elle Magazine in the 80s and currently writes for The Sunday Times. She lives in a lovely flat in London with a garden. She has been married twice (happily at that, both times) and has a daughter. She has many, many friends. She also suffers from severe depression. The "damn dog" is that depression that debilitates her for a long period in her 40s and this is the story of how she fought back. It is not funny. It's bold and courageous and important. Very, very important. The way she describes her moods is simply phenomenol. Brampton wrote, "What matters is to feel that we are not alone." Anyone who has ever been hit with severe depression will feel comfort in knowing they are not the only one to feel the way they do. And anyone who has ever wondered what loved ones go through when battling depression will receive a no-nonsense, realistic account of the illness. Brampton affirms many times that she wants to break down the shameful barriers of mental illness. She likens depression to cancer in that it's a life-threatening illness that needs to be treated.

Brampton deserves an award for this memoir.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Book of Illumination

The Book of Illumination: A Novel from the Ghost Files by Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley

This is a new series by the real-life "ghost whisperer," Mary Ann Winkowski and a collaborator and if the series continues to be this good, I'll be pre-ordering each novel! Anza O'Malley is the fictional ghost whisperer--she indeed communicates with ghosts to help them tie up unfinished business so they can move on to the afterlife. She's also able to solve crimes. This is a case of a stolen manuscript, the Book of Kildare, from the Boston Athenaeum. With the addition of ghosts haunting the museum/library because of their involvement with the manuscript, all kinds of excitement ensues. Anza is a very likeable character--a single mom with a very normal life outside of her sixth sense. I'm looking forward to following her on more ghost adventures!