Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review - My Ideal Bookshelf, Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount

My Ideal Bookshelf

Thessaly La Force (Ed), Jane Mount (Ill)

Category: Nonfiction: Books & Reading; Art

Synopsis: Dozens of writers, artists, chefs, and inventors share what is on their “ideal bookshelf,” each of which is represented with a painting.

Date finished: 6 June 2013

Rating: ***½

This is a brilliant idea. I love the idea. I couldn’t believe no one had thought of this before. Readers love nothing more than to poke through someone else’s bookcase. A single bookshelf says more about a person than most anything they actually say to you. The idea is so smart on so many levels.

And yet, the book didn’t work for me.

Here’s the deal: I’m only interested in what people I know are reading. Of the 106 writers, artists, chefs, etc. represented here, I was only familiar with 15 of them. And I was not intimately familiar with any of them. It became a joke with me. I’d turn the page, see another name I didn’t know, look them up in the back for a brief bio (and I mean brief) and invariably it would say, “short story writer.” This had to be 90% short story writers—or founding members of Sonic Youth. The editor showed her bias in such an obvious and naive way, that it narrowed her audience hugely. Now, maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she’s an Artist-with-a-capital-A, so names don’t matter to her as much as passion, but she did want to sell books, didn’t she? Right?

Now, had this book been proposed by a bigger name in publishing, and a name more connected with writers rather than “app designers” (good heavens is that going to date this book in a few years), you could have seen Stephen King and Maya Angelou and Gwyneth Paltrow (I don’t know why I threw her name out there, she just seems like the bookish type). This could have been a fabulous book. With the people used—God bless them—it was pretty ho-hum. When will folks realize we don’t all live on the East Coast, that we’re not all obsessed with pop culture, and that we don’t all have an i-device sprouting out of our fingers or ears?

I enjoyed the paintings and appreciated that most of the work there was in learning to do the lettering for the various spines. That fascinated me. The accompanying text was too short, though. The blurbs read like the editor, La Force, had asked for a few pages of text, and then she ruthlessly cut and jimmied things until it fit in the space allotted. It’s what editors do, but she was careless about it. Everybody’s text sounded exactly the same, because she edited the voice out. The text was soulless and limp. And since they were only allowed a certain amount of space, only a couple of the books on each shelf were ever discussed. Excuse me, but wasn’t that sort of the point of the whole exercise?

It was interesting to see what showed up on shelves over and over: The Elements of Style, Moby-Dick, Lolita, Jesus’ Son, The House Book, Bird by Bird, Infinite Jest, as well as work by Updike, Didion, O’Connor, Wharton, Carver, and Lorrie Moore. James Patterson’s story about watching a woman shoplift his book (page 142) is almost worth the price of admission. I wrote down a few quotes that I enjoyed, but I found it almost tragic how many writers wrote about their desire to imitate other writers.

This book should have been done by Oprah! That would have been…wow, I can’t even finish that sentence without having to sit down for a minute. Not that I’m an Oprah-ite, just that her pull would have made this book legendary. She could have brought in well-known writers and big time celebrities. The folks represented would have appealed to more readers, and the audience would have been expanded exponentially. (There are less than 30 reviews for this book on Amazon.) As it is, it’s sort of a snapshot in time that feels plastic and throw-away. It makes me sad that such a great idea failed so spectacularly.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Maybe, but mostly just to get their take.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review - The Key is Love, Marie Osmond

The Key Is Love: My Mother’s Wisdom, a Daughter’s Gratitude


Marie Osmond, Marcia Wilkie

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Celebrities; Parenting & Families

Synopsis: Osmond recalls her mother’s parenting style and discusses her life as a mother and daughter.

Date finished: 5 June 2013

Rating: ***½

Celebrity memoirs are never great. That’s sort of Celebrity Memoir 101. If you like the celebrity, you’ll like the book.

I know very little about the Osmond family. I was too young to know about the Osmond family as a performing group and likewise with the Donny and Marie show (I didn’t even know it was a T.V. show!). What I did know of Marie Osmond was when she became a country music star—actually, she was more on her way out by the time I knew of her. I did know, however, that the Osmond family was a large Mormon family. And that appeals to me.

I expected this to be a nice, light, book that was uplifting, if not well written. I was disappointed. For days after finishing, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t get the warm fuzzies I’d expected. Was it me? No, it wasn’t. The fact is, the bits of reminiscence about Olive Osmond were warm and friendly and reminded you that the Osmonds were one of the last great old-fashioned American families. They even handled fame and its demands—as a family, no less—in a humble, yet savvy way.

Where I was sorely disappointed, however, was that Marie apparently didn’t apply her mother’s parenting style with the same success. I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly on the lookout for actors who have till-death-do-us-part marriages, performers who don’t get into drugs and alcohol, and celebrities who raise their children with boundaries and instill character. I like to see celebrities who can handle success and fame and the demands with integrity and grace. In that respect, Marie Osmond falls short of my ideal. She becomes just another celebrity with “celebrity problems” and her kids are your typical “celebrity kids.” Now, I know how hard it must be to raise good kids when you have great material means, and when you can’t be home because of performing or travel commitments. I appreciate how hard it must be on a marriage, too. There are stressors in celebrity families that the average family doesn’t deal with. I understand and sympathize with that. And yet, that’s where this memoir failed me. It was just another story of a celebrity family that falls apart at the seams and then picks itself back up again until the next tsunami comes through (to mix three metaphors).

I also feel like I need to gripe about the way the book was written. I sort of got the impression that the book was written for fans only, with no consideration for “non-fans” who might pick it up. (That, or it relied on the content of previous books—and who but a fan would know there were previous memoirs?) Even a simple chronology would have helped. She’d mention a marriage or allude to a remarriage, and I had no idea what or who she was talking about. I was probably a hundred pages in before I realized she’d had a marriage between her marriages to “Steve.” She’d also mention something huge in passing (like her son Michael’s death), and you never knew if she was going to address that in depth or not. She usually did, but it would be dozens of pages later. In short, the book needed an editor with vision. It was a meandering mess.

So, I don’t know. It just fell short. It was honest without being a tell-all (tell-alls are creepy). There was just an overall tone of immaturity and self-justification, and I detected a great deal of “mommy guilt” that hasn’t fully been dealt with. She uses her mother as a yardstick, and I don’t think she knows that she doesn’t quite measure up.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review - Where the Peacocks Sing, Alison Singh Gee

Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home


Alison Singh Gee

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Asia & Asian-American

Synopsis: Asian-American Gee falls in love with Indian Ajay while living in Hong Kong.

Date finished: 30 May 2013

Rating: ***½

I love books about other cultures and other parts of the world. I love descriptions of daily life, meals, and how homes are furnished around the globe. I love books about the journey to finding home or the challenges of creating it. I like stories about two people from different places discovering each other. I love happy endings. This book had all of those elements.

And yet, I was disappointed.

Perhaps the book was too tidy. Everything pertaining to relationships—Gee’s and Ajays, Gee’s and her in-laws—got tied up so neatly. But the big plot point—what would become of the havli (the Singh family’s manor/palace), Mokimpur—this was not resolved. Perhaps I never fully trusted the narrator’s change of heart that led to a change of pace. Perhaps the amount of emphasis put on money in all three cultures was off-putting.

Read as is, though, this was a nice light travel to India (with a bit of Hong Kong and Los Angeles mixed in). It just wasn’t completely satisfying to me.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Probably not. Although I might recommend it to anyone truly charmed by India.

You might also enjoy:
My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes) by Luisa Weiss

Other Reviews:
Read this from Sophisticated Dorkiness.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review - The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius, Kristine Barnett



The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius


Kristine Barnett

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Parenting & Families; Disabilities; Education

Synopsis: Barnett tells about raising her autistic genius son.

Date finished: 27 May 2013

Rating: *****

I had a feeling I’d enjoy this book, but I had no idea how much. The story of young Jake is told with humility, humor, and grace. I was concerned early on that the writing would be flat and un-engaging (a “tell” rather than a “show”) but things picked up, and the writing improved.

Even though I vetted this book, I was caught off guard that Jake was an autistic genius. I had somehow skated right over the whole autistic element. I tend to stay away from books where disease and disability play too large a part, but I’m glad I started this with an open mind. I was richly rewarded.

Jake is diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and gradually, he begins to recede from family life and human interaction and into himself. Barnett, a day care teacher, sees this happening, and when Jake’s schoolteacher tells her to let go of her expectations for Jake, she knows it’s up to her to reach Jake before he’s gone forever.

And she does.

And then, he flourishes beyond anyone’s expectations, teaching himself higher math and physics by working out answers to his own questions. By the time he’s midway through elementary school, he’s developing original theories in physics that, if proved, will put him in line for the Nobel Prize. Barnett realizes that at the time he was slipping away from them—nonverbal, nonsocial—he was really working.

It’s hard for me to decide which character I like more—Jake or his mom. I think I might go with his mother. All along the way, with limited knowledge and resources, she was able and willing to figure out what Jake needed—and to get it for him. This was inspiring and relatable. In the conclusion, Barnett sums up her parenting this way, “If I had stopped and let myself bask in the awe of Jake’s amazing abilities—if I had stopped to ponder how unusual he really is—I don’t think I could have been a good mother to him.” (page 238)

Throughout the book, I found myself thinking about the definition of “normal.” Perhaps the mind that is capable of working out the problems of the universe, even at the expense of human interactions, is a “higher” mind than the one that esteems balancing the two. If you rise above the human relationship in an exceptional way, is human relationship necessary?

I also found myself somewhat frightened by the thought of a limitless mind. Those of us who have “normal” brain functioning are taught that while we can continue to learn, we will reach a ceiling on how high our minds can go. We accept that there is a cap on our ability to comprehend information and develop new ideas. This is so engrained in us that the thought of unlimited ability is scary.

The humor in the book was a refreshing respite from heavy thoughts:

[Jake’s] favorite book in first grade was a GED preparation manual. (page 119)

When Jake started to realize how unusual these behaviors were, he became a little more self-conscious about them. “Okay, that was kind of a two hundred forty-six toothpicks,” he’d say with a chuckle, referring to the iconic scene in the movie Rain Man. (page 130)

The book is an astounding look into the mind of an autistic genius and an ordinary mother who humbly advocates for him to get the stimulation he needs while making sure he has the childhood he deserves. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in questions of the capability of the human mind, or anyone needing a redeeming book about a good family living through an extraordinary situation. This could become a great movie.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Wholeheartedly. This is a story about humanity, about potential, about love, about triumph.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review - Dancers Among Us, Jordan Matter

Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday


Jordan Matter

Category: Nonfiction: Photography

Synopsis: Matter photographs professional dancers planted in real-life situations.

Date finished: 26 May 2013

Rating: ****½

This is a very charming book. Amazon has been trying to convince me of that for months, so when I was asked to order the book for our library, I stuck my “personal notification” in it when it came in. The photographs are categorized into several categories (love, playing, working, etc.), and each chapter has a short biographical essay by the photographer. I enjoyed these little essays—little glimpses into a regular guy’s life.

In the back of the book is a section in which Matter discusses the behind-the-scenes of almost all of the photographs in the book. This was very interesting. As a dance-illiterate and photography-illiterate person, this information really helped me see what went into individual scenes. The explanations also offered some hilarious, serendipitous, and, at times, criminal, stories. Don’t skip the stories if you “read” the book.

The photographs themselves are fabulous. Captured so apparently effortlessly, I had to keep reminding myself how difficult those moves must have been. No tricks were used in the execution of the dance moves or the editing of the photographs. There is at least one that made my head spin, it was so daring. Some were beautiful. Some were funny. All were captivating.

I’ve added this book to my Amazon Wish List, because they were right. I was charmed.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. It would be a great gift for the person who has everything. And a great gift for someone who needs a little joy in paper form.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review - My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved World


Sonia Sotomayor

Category: Nonfiction: Memoirs: Coming-of-age & Childhood; Hispanic-American

Synopsis: Supreme Court justice Sotomayor recounts her life from childhood until her nomination to the federal court.

Date finished: 22 May 2013

Rating: ****½

I very much enjoyed this book. I’d been seeing it for months on Amazon, always at the top of the lists, and I finally bought it to give it a try. I was not disappointed. I was concerned that it might be too detached and academic to be enjoyable, but I found Sotomayor an engaging and completely accessible storyteller.

I don’t want to talk about the book’s contents too much here, for fear of spoiling it for potential readers. I will say that my favorite part of the book—indeed, a good portion of the book—is about Sotomayor’s early years as a Puerto Rican girl in the Bronx. I enjoyed this part the most. The memories were vivid and pulled you in. Once she started her career as a lawyer, my fascination cooled a bit.

One of her strengths as a woman is her analytical nature. I found it fascinating to read how this nature was there from the time she was very young, and how it invariably helped her in her legal career. She talks candidly about her self-taught independence as a blessing and a curse. I was gratified to see her touch on personal issues such as being a single woman, not having raised children, and forgiving her mother and forging a stronger relationship with her.

I was tickled when she would stumble upon accolades, graciously accept them, and then have to ask or research what they meant. For instance, she and her family seemed to not understand the prestige of being accepted to Princeton. Later, she would have to be told to not ignore that Phi Beta Kappa letter in her trash can, and upon graduation she had to look up what summa cum laude meant.

It was interesting to read her take on affirmative action (what helped her get into Princeton and later Yale Law School). I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about affirmative action in higher education. Certainly, in my years of attending and working at a university, I’ve seen the system work as nothing more than a quota system, admitting less qualified minority students who flounder under the load of college academics. On the other hand, you have Sotomayor’s example of a student who thrived only because she was given the chance to. Her success is certainly what proponents of affirmative action hope to see realized, but it’s not always the case.

The book takes us only to the point of becoming a federal court judge. It does not discuss her nomination or present tenure as a Supreme Court justice. And rest assured, it does not deal with any liberal leanings or prejudices.

When asked what her legacy will be, she answers: “My highest aspiration for my work on the Court is to grow in understanding beyond what I can foresee, beyond any borders visible from this vantage.”

I look forward to a second book someday, that will bring us up through her judicial career.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, wholeheartedly.

You might also enjoy:
Justice Clarence Thomas’s MyGrandfather’s Son and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Extraordinary Ordinary People.