Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Really, Senator?! Really??

After the third day of hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, she has been questioned on numerous important, controversial issues. Abortion, gays in the military, and vampires. Yes. Elena Kagan was asked "Team Edward or Team Jacob?"


Sure, you might think things have piled up around the house because you have a penchant for collecting or have fallen a bit behind on your filing. And you mean to read those magazines as soon as you have more time. I believe you. Just don’t let Randy Frost and Gail Steketee see that backlog, or you might be diagnosed with a subclinical case of hoarding. The two are authors of the new book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

Hoarding is receiving increased attention these days thanks to reality TV. Doctorow also tackled the topic last year in his novel Homer and Langely, about the famous Collyer brothers of New York, two eccentrics who walled out the world, living and dying in a decaying mansion packed to the rafters with stuff. This nonfiction take explores the causes of compulsive hoarding and potential treatments—from self-help groups to expensive forced cleanouts ordered by city governments worried about citizens’ safety.

Most hoarders, it turns out, are highly intelligent and creative; many are self-aware despite their inability to conquer their obsession with things. For them, every cast off object represents a lost opportunity or a failure to imagine how the strangest, smallest objects might find a new use or a new owner. Clearing away the mess requires an ability to focus, decide, and let go that are beyond the reach of hoarders. From children who weep when dirt falls off their shoe (because it belongs to them) to man who rents secret storage space to hide his hoarding from his wife, the book is packed (I couldn’t stop myself) with fascinating portraits.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Elliot Allagash

If you looked at a picture of writer Simon Rich, you might think "Who is this little kid?" Despite his youthful appearance, he's not a child, although he is pretty young for the success that he has had. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a two-book contract with Random House. Since then he published two short works of nonfiction, Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations and Free-Range Chickens. Both are hilarious. I highly recommend them. I also recommend reading them in private because I was laughing so hard, I started snorting. Ant Farm was a finalist for the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor. He has also written for several magazines and is a writer for Saturday Night Live. His first novel, Elliot Allagash, was released last month, and although I wasn't snorting with laughter this time, it was touching, clever, creepy, sad, humorous, and completely engrossing.

Seymour Herson is the most unpopular boy in his class at his private school in Manhattan. When Elliot Allagash transfers to his school, Seymour finds an unlikely friend. Elliot comes from an extremely wealthy family. When he tells Seymour "I could buy you all the popularity in this school...With a little research and some well-placed investments, I could make you a king..." Seymour jumps at the offer. What follows is a series of twisted schemes masterminded by Elliot and aided by his chauffeur. But Seymour's desperate wish to belong keeps him entangled in Elliot's dysfunctional life, and begins to send him down the same path. Publisher's Weekly criticizes Rich for his lack of character development, but I disagree. I thought Seymour was very well-developed. I found him to be sweet and funny, and he touched me in a way that few characters have. All of Rich's books are fairly short and are easy to get through quickly, so you can read it in an afternoon or two.

BTW: What's up with these Harvard grads? Nick McDonell is also a recent Harvard grad and the same age as Rich, and he has three novels under his belt already. I was pretty impressed with his latest, An Expensive Education.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Of course the cliché is true: you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But sometimes you get lucky. I picked up Fernanda Eberstadt’s new novel Rat on a whim, drawn in by the photograph of a girl peering out from behind a veil of long hair. The unusual title and hot pink spine didn’t hurt either. The novel is a coming-of-age story about teenage girl living in the South of France with her loving but deeply flawed mother. Eventually the household expands to include a charming adopted brother and her mother’s sleazy live-in boyfriend.

Even before the boyfriend makes their home unlivable for Rat and her brother, Rat (Ratkin to her mother) longs to meet her absent father and mysterious grandmother, a former model and film star. Eventually, Rat and Morgan hit the road, heading for London and a reunion with Rat’s father. Rat is a sensitive kid and a sweet, protective older sister. She forgives her mother’s mistakes and draws her somewhat aloof, artist father into a relationship.

With easy, realistic dialogue and an engaging plot, Eberstandt lures you into Rat’s world. A charming read for both adults and older teens.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Books to Movies: Never Let Me Go

The trailer for the film Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's amazing novel, has just been released. It looks fantastic! Release date is October 1st.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday is a commemoration observed annually on June 16th to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and relive the events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904.

In related news, Apple will allow Ulysses Seen, a graphic novel adaptation of Ulysses to be published as an iPad app. Apple previously asked the creators to crop out scenes with nudity, but after protest, decided it will allow it to be published as is.

For those interested in reading Ulysses but are a little intimidated, the Evanston Public Library is starting a year-long book discussion series, Mission Impossible: Ulysses. "Enjoy the support and encouragement of others on this journey to finish a seemingly impossible novel." The first meeting is, of course, tonight.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is this milk still good?

About every week I go through my refrigerator and throw out all the expired foods, leftovers, and produce that has gone bad. I'm always ashamed of myself, but I would bet that everyone reading this blog has done this. Tristram Stuart's book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal examines the topic of wasted food, but on a much larger and more global scale. When I was younger I used to hear all the time that there were starving people in Africa, so I should finish the food on my plate. While it is true that there are starving people all over the world, it is not because there is a lack of food. Stuart claims that there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, but because so much food is wasted, people go hungry. He examines the enormous levels of food waste created by affluent countries, such as the U.S. and western Europe, from the farmers, to the grocery stores and consumers. He also examines the factors that cause much food to be wasted in countries where poverty and hunger is rampant, such as Pakistan. Stuart suggests solutions we can all incorporate into our lives, such as reducing the amount of food we buy (no more BOGO free), not sticking to the strict and overly cautious expiration dates (not a problem for me!), and composting. One of Stuart's personal solutions to this problem was to become a "freegan" which is someone who essentially dumpster dives for food. While I'm not sure I could do this, he finds a shocking amount of perfectly good food. This is a fascinating book, and has definitely made me think twice about letting food go to waste. The pictures alone of the piles of wasted food are enough to make you cry.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I'm sorry to say this, but Philip Pullman's new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, was such a huge disappointment. I loved The Golden Compass and was so hoping for another wonderful story, but this was soooo boring I just couldn't bring myself to finish it. I got the audio version, which Pullman narrates and is fantastic, but even that only got me about halfway through before I couldn't take it any longer. The premise is that Mary gave birth to twins, one named Jesus and the other Christ. Sounds interesting, no? I love new takes on old stories. But, ugh. It was so slow and dense and boring. I really wanted to like this book, but there was just nothing about it that I liked.

On a positive note, Philip Pullman is an extraordinarily talented narrator. I would put him up there with my favorites, Jim Dale, Scott Brick, and Kate Reading. His voice is just magical. He could make a living just narrating audiobooks. Maybe I'll start listening to His Dark Materials again.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I think I decided to read Philippe Djian's novel, Unforgivable, simply because he is French. I loved Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, so my reasoning was: maybe it's a French thing, and all French writers are great, and I've been missing out. Djian is a best-selling French author who has written over 20 novels, so he's been around longer than Barbery, and Unforgivable received the 2009 Prix Jean Freustie, which sounds important.

The premise sounds like your typical mystery or thriller. Francis is an aging author, whose wife and daughter were killed in an accident several years ago. His surviving daughter, Alice, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished without a trace. With no help from the police, Francis hires an old friend to investigate her disappearance. Now, in a typical American best-seller, this would become a fast-paced thrill ride, with Francis getting involved in the investigation, chasing after bad guys, etc. But thankfully, this is not like a typical American best-seller. The novel takes a much slower pace. Francis is consumed by his feelings of helplessness and worry. The strain takes a toll on his already failing second marriage, and he reflects on his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and the accident that changed their lives. The conclusion to his daughter's disappearance is not a shocking event, but the outcome nevertheless changes everyone's lives forever. A compelling and contemplative story that examines the lives of very flawed individuals and explores the question of forgiveness. A best-seller in America? Doubtful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Fair Lazy

Although I love Jen Lancaster, and I enjoyed her latest book My Fair Lazy: One reality television addict's attempt to discover if not being a dumb ass is the new black, or a culture-up manifesto, I think this has been her weakest book so far. It contains her typical humor and personality, but it was a little on the weak side when it came to "plot" and didn't feel very cohesive. Jen decides that she has been watching way too much reality television, and as a result, can't seem to hold her own in grown-up conversations. She decides to read more, attend the theater, watch musicals and operas, try new foods, etc. Basically get out of her comfort zone and try new things. She has some funny adventures, but it felt as if she was struggling to find a topic to write about and half-heartedly came up with this. Nevertheless, the girl is hilarious, which more than makes up for it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Muggle's Guide to the Wizarding World

Last month, I mentioned a book that I stumbled on, The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter by Allan and Elizabeth Kronzek. I was mainly interested in it because of its reference to animal trials, but after reading more, it turns out to be full of interesting facts. I always thought that J. K. Rowling was so creative to come up with all those creatures and magical terms, but it turns out that much of what she includes in her books are not new ideas at all. Of course I have heard of unicorns, giants, goblins and mermaids, but I didn't know that grindylows, kappas, and hinkypunks have all been a part of legend and folklore for ages. Herbology and Divination have also been practiced for years as well. This book explains the history behind so much of Harry Potter's world, including the difference between a ghost and a ghoul, the legend of the grim, as well as the use of cats, toads and owls in the magical world. A very interesting and useful book for Muggles.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You Done With That Tissue?

On the heels of the recent health care debate comes a timely bestseller about medical history and ethics: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It tells the story of the woman behind HeLa cells, the first “immortal” line of cells grown in a lab. Although her cells facilitated everything from cancer research to cloning to the polio vaccine, the Lacks family never consented to their donation nor made a dime of profit from their use. In fact, they struggled to afford health care, and one son actually volunteered for medical testing to get a little money and a place to sleep. Lacks herself grew up in poverty, died at a young age from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

The book raises interesting questions about medical ethics. Should we care if doctors routinely use discarded tissue for medical research? Should patient consent be required? Should the companies who convert these materials into medical products be the only ones to profit from their use, or do they owe something to the people who provided their raw materials?

Skloot is a gifted writer who profiles the characters in her tale as carefully as any novelist and makes complex scientific topics understandable and engaging reading. The book reminds us of the real, ordinary lives behind every scientific discovery and every historical event. And it illustrates once again how considerations of medical ethics lag behind technological and scientific advances.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mr. Right?

Forget what those online dating sites say about how they’re able to locate your soul mate with a series of insightful survey questions. Everyone knows it’s tougher than that. It’s especially tough for Polly, the heroine of Nevada Barr’s stand-alone thriller 13 ½. Having survived a horrendous childhood of poverty and neglect, Polly is a successful professor and single mother of two when she meets Marshall Marchand, a New Orleans architect. Her daughters do what any level-headed pair of sisters would do when faced with the prospect of a step-father: they schedule an interview, which Marshall aces. Polly, however, asks for some time to think.

And as the novel proceeds, there’s plenty to consider. Did Marshall rescue Polly and the girls in the nick of time or was he the one who caused their peril? What connection does Marshall have to the fortune teller Polly meets? Why is Marshall’s brother always hovering nearby, and can Polly trust him when he warns her about Marshall?

13 ½ is a decidedly creepy little novel told from multiple points of view, including a disconcerting deadpan voice with an interest in famous serial killers. And then there are the axe murders; did I mention the axe murders?

Fast-paced and tightly written, Barr’s novel made the New York Times best of the year list last year. You won’t be able to put it down.

Now it’s time to read about something nicer. Anyone know of a good novel about kittens drinking warm milk?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Time to Party

So how will you answer this fall when the teacher asks for that “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” theme? If you can stand the heat, it might be time to head to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. No matter how many times I read that book or see the movie, no matter how many awkward middle school essays it has indirectly forced me to grade over the years, I just never tire of Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus and Boo. Who can resist the quiet moral authority of Gregory Peck patiently reading on the jailhouse steps, waiting for the mob he knows will arrive? What is more terrifying than the huge shadows on the Radley house at night or the kids fleeing through the woods to escape their unseen attacker?

It’s a nearly perfect novel, funded by the author’s generous friends whose Christmas gift one year allowed her to leave her job in airlines reservations and take time off to write.
Harper Lee, of course, never wrote anything else, but, really, why would you bother? She divides her time between New York and Alabama, still shops at the Piggly Wiggly and likes to drink coffee at Hardee’s. Her work is done. The characters live on. Boo Radley has become the namesake for everything from a rock band to a toy novelty shop in Spokane, and folks in Monroeville plan serve up “Tequila Mockingbirds” come July. I guess I should be horrified that people want to cash in on art this way, but I’m guessing that it doesn’t bother Lee that much. When you’ve written the nation’s favorite novel, you can afford to be generous.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Son of Hamas

I admit that I know very little about the Palestinian/Israeli history and conflict, and what little I do know has probably been influenced by a pro-Israel slant. I find it to be an extremely complicated and confusing issue, so I was intrigued when I came across Mosab Hassan Yousef's memoir, Son of Hamas. Mosab is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas. Once a devout Muslim and member of Hamas, Mosab has converted to Christianity and moved to the U.S. The writing is not spectacular, and the timing of events can be a bit confusing, but his account of his childhood living amongst the violence, his arrest, torture, and imprisonment in an Israeli prison, and his decision to work for Israel's Shin Bet makes for a compelling account. Mosab does a fairly good job of explaining the history of the different Palestinian organizations, the Palestinian side of the conflict, and the attempts for peace. Although his bias does come across occasionally, he does attempt to be fair to both sides. This is certainly not a definitive, unbiased history of this conflict, but it is an interesting story from a very unique perspective.