Tag Archives: Book Review

Must Read… Together

My book club recently read Beautiful Boy, a true story by David Sheff about his son’s meth addiction. I tend to gravitate towards these hard core drug memoirs, because there’s an intensity and frenetic energy to the voices that make for a compelling read. If it’s well written, I want to read it…. and in this case, Sheff doesn’t disappoint.

beautiful-boyIt is heartwrenching and scary, drawing the reader into the same cycle of denial/forgiveness/hope that he goes through as a father.  And moreso than other memoirs of this ilk, it brings up heaps of questions for debate and consideration: Is addiction a disease or a choice? Why does our society treat addicts as outcasts, and is that hampering the chance for recovery? Are current rehab options productive and viable? What can a parent do to help a child stay off the path of addiction?

When reading Beautiful Boy, there were times when I felt Sheff was holding back, or maybe only telling half-truths. It was only when I read Tweak, by his son Nic, that I grasped the power of perspective. tweak

Whether it’s in marriage, friendships, work situations or family interactions, there are always at least two sides to every story. If two people witness the same car crash, for example, their perspectives are bound to be wildly different. The one-two punch of Beautiful Boy and Tweak couldn’t illustrate this more clearly.

Did Nic have a fulfilling childhood of surfing, swimming, writing? Or was he pressured to grow up too early, always around adults? How did his parents’ divorce and remarriages impact him emotionally? This isn’t an exercise in blame; rather, it points to the fact that parents reading Beautiful Boy should not only rely on the father’s perspective, but should read Tweak as well, to get Nic’s viewpoint. Granted, the truth lies somewhere in between, but at least we are presented with the chance to seek more than a single narrative.

For more on David and Nic Sheff, check out these links:

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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

crocodile-image2Check out Women’s Adventure Magazine for my latest book review…  When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin.

“Few authors have the power of perspective to elevate a memoir’s relevance beyond their individual story. Peter Godwin is the exception.”

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Blog Slacker

I confess: I am officially a blog slacker. I have no excuses… but maybe a few explanations: e.g. reading Twilight to see what all the hype was about and then getting sucked into the entire series; discovering cross country skiing trails in my neighborhood; spending time with the perfect pair: a good book with a freshly brewed cup of green tea.

So, just in time to sneak in a “Best of” list before 2008 ticks away, I offer my favorite books, in no particular order, of the year:

Nonfiction

1. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa (Peter Godwin)

2. The World Is What It Is: the Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipual (Patrick French)

3. Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (Peter Hessler)

4. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Daniel Mendelsohn)

5. The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. (David Carr)

Fiction

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)

2. Serena (Ron Rash)

3. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Murakami Haruki)

4. Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)

5. Loving Frank (Nancy Horan)

Always a good book on hand

Always a good book on hand

 

Peace, good health and quality books to all in 2009!

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Disappointed

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest pop sociology book, Outliers, did not live up to the promise of its subhead: “The Story of Success.” As always with Gladwell, the tidbits of little publicized studies (e.g. the cultural reason for the excessive Korean Air plane crashes) and psychological tests (e.g. the impact of calling a Southern guy vs. New Englander an “asshole” on his way into a classroom study) were fascinating in their own right, the perfect fodder for cocktail chat. MGladwell But, as has been the worsening trend with his trio of books, Gladwell simply doesn’t connect the social observations in a convincing – or useful – thesis.

While I still stand by The Tipping Point as an essentiel read for anyone in PR or marketing, Outliers felt like a lazy attempt. It was formulaic (and as a result will likely become a bestseller on the merit of the author’s past success),  oftentimes condescending and surprisingly simplistic, especially in its generalizations on wealth and race. 

For now, I’m sticking to my new favorite columnists, Chip and Dan Heath, whose book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is on my short list. For a taste of their insight, check out their column in Fast Company.

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Imagining a World Without Humans

What if humans were no longer around to run the Hydraulics Emergency Response system in Manhattan… would the 13 million gallons of water overpower the city’s subway tunnels? What about the Palo Verde, Ariz. nuclear generating station, which employs 2,000 people just to keep pumps and filters cooling the plant’s steam columns?

See Women’s Adventure Magazine for my recent review of The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

If you liked The Tipping Point, The World is Flat or Freakonomics, this should be right up your alley!

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Armchair Travel

Some of my favorite reads of all time fall into the “armchair travel” category. Check out the July issue of Women’s Adventure Magazine newsletter for my review of Rita Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad: Living Large in the World and Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan.

If you want to get monthly book reviews – and other news about new products, gear, events, travel, etc. – sign up for their monthly newsletter.

And, for any writers and photographers out there, definitely check out their September Magazine Conference, which is focused on travel writing & photography. On a whim, I attended their Magazine Writers Conference earlier this summer and absolutely loved it… keynote from Pam Houston, networking with fellow writers (all at different stages of their writing adventures), insight from freelance writers and editors, and excellent hands-on writing workshops!

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Bright Shiny Morning

About two weeks ago, I finished James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, a novel that follows a myriad of characters to and in LA. I’ve delayed writing a review because I’m conflicted about it. Let me explain…

 

In one sense, I loved the writing and was lulled into the rhythm of the rambling prose (akin to A Million Little Pieces), and tore through the book in just a couple of days. It was addictive to read, the equivalent of a reality TV show you casually flip to, and then end up getting sucked into, watching hours on end (am I the only one who does that?!)

 

On the other hand, it fell flat in imaginative fiction. There wasn’t enough distinction between the voices of the different characters, many of whom came across as cliches. Frey’s own voice – his commentary, struggles and perspective – was too prevalent in the characters themselves. 

 

In one passage, Frey writes:

“Scandal, mothf*ers, everybody loves a scandal. Even if you try to turn away, you can’t, when you try to ignore it, you find it impossible. You know why? Because it’s awesome, hilarious, awful, it’s a f*ing mess, and it almost always make you feel better about yourself. So admit, you love and your friends love and your family loves everyone you know loves a scandal, the bigger the better, the uglier the more fun, the more devastation the better you feel.”

 

This is quintessential Frey. Angry, frustrated, brutally honesty. A possible shout-out to his own struggles when he was outed for peppering his memoir with fiction, or lies (depending on your perspective.) This style was the backbone of the author’s initial success, but in Bright Shiny Morning, this same stream of consciousness and liberal use of F bombs don’t work.

 

For me, there are two main characters in this book:  the first is LA itself, in all of its pain and grime, love and disappointment, drugs, violence, confusion. The second is James Frey, whose distaste for the current social hierarchy seeps through the fragile shells of the characters he’s created.

 

Would it have worked somehow as nonfiction? I can’t answer that.

 

The novel is disjointed, lacks character depth, and too often veers from the most interesting storylines with random flashes of data, e.g. lists of different ethnic gangs in LA, a timeline of southern Calif. natural disasters. (By the way, what ever happened to the mini-golf guy?!)

 

I wasn’t sure what style I was reading. While I would have preferred complete transparency back with his memoir, in the case of this novel, the lack of genre and tangible presence of the author’s voice were a distraction.

 

When the A Million Little Pieces controversy first broke, I was among the disappointed and angry population of readers. However, as I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and the pressures on authors, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the publishing house and not Frey himself who was at fault for the dishonest, commercial metamorphosis of novel into true memoir.

 

I wanted to love Bright Shiny Morning, but for its merit as a novel, I didn’t. But (and this is a big But!), I do look forward to whatever he has to write next. There’s something about Frey that is so real (despite the “truthiness” scandal), readable (despite the lack of genre) and insightful (despite his cliches.)

 

When I figure out what that is, I’ll let you know!

 

Until then, I probably won’t stop thinking about this book…

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A new kind of “light” summer reading

Full disclosure: I am very picky about books. Very! I’ve never been a fan of chick lit, can’t justify taking up time with mysteries and romances, and won’t finish a book if it’s poorly written. But let’s be honest: there is nothing more satisfying than a well-written book!

So when I think about summer reading recommendations, I think about books that are easy to read, have characters that grab me and sentences that stay out of the way of the story. My summer reading books are not necessarily light in subject matter, but they’re light in required brainpower!

Loving Frank (Nancy Horan) – historical fiction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair with Mamah Cheney. Juicy, conflicted and very readable. People Magazine would have been all over these two!

The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) – a memoir of a dysfunctional family, by a woman with an unbelievably sensible voice, perspective and wit.

On Beauty (Zadie Smith) – a story nestled in your classic New England college town, with storylines that challenge ideas of race and family expectations.

Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen) – solid character development is a must when your canvas is a 1920’s traveling circus! Gruen is whimsical and whacky, but she still hits your heart.

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) – beautiful novel showing personal struggles illuminated against a greater political and historical backdrop: the Biafra, Africa civil war.

Garlic & Sapphires (Ruth Reichl) – in this memoir that playfully skips from one scene to the next, Reichl recounts her adventures as the New York Times restaurant critic, donning disguises – and figuring herself out – while dining at the city’s aspiring hot spots.

What are you reading this summer? Send along a reccommendation!

 

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Three Cups of Tea

The morning after I finished reading Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, I immediately sent out an email to friends, enthusiastically recommending the true story of Greg’s work educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The idea is simple: Use education as a tool to fight terrorism. The feat is heroic: One man overcoming cultural expectations and barriers to achieve this goal.”

This is from my review, which appeared in our local newspaper in early 2007. Currently #1 on the NYT paperback nonfiction list (72 weeks on the list so far!), Greg’s book continues its momentum. And deservedly so. Regardless of your political or religious view, this hopeful story will be an antidote to the thrum of negative news and all too present contentious “journalism.”

Having spent some time with Greg when he visited Breckenridge last June, and then again this winter when he filled the 1,000+ capacity Macky Auditorium in Boulder, I continue to be impressed with his dedication to his work in such a volatile part of the world and maybe moreso, his complete humility.

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