Tuesday, December 30, 2014

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult TimesWhen Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short collection of essays edited from live talks is paradigm-shifting. Chödrön takes the traditional ideas about loss and mourning and turns them sideways, asking the reader to think very differently about life transitions.

Although there is some Sanskrit in the text referring to certain Buddhist concepts, it's all very accessible to the Western mind unfamiliar with this way of thinking. Instead of giving permission to feel sorry for ourselves (which every single one of the other books on grief seem to be based upon), Chödrön instead reminds us that suffering is the bedrock of the human condition. It's to be expected, borne, learned from, and integrated into our experience. In short, this is the most healthy, most helpful, most logical and truthful take I've read on how to face loss and grief. When I read and thought about the simple concepts she lays out, I felt like a bag of rocks had been taken from me.

I recommend this book above all others if you've found little helpful in traditional ideas about loss, as I have. Beyond the philosophy, she offers tools for getting re-centered and back into life again. I read this book after a profound loss, but its ideas are helpful for your life's toolbox to have ready when it happens to you. It doesn't take long to read, but it takes a lifetime to contemplate.

"When we are training in the art of peace, we are not given any promises that, because of our noble intentions, everything will be ok. In fact, there are no promises of fruition at all. Instead, we are encouraged to simply look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness".

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Relato de un náufrago, by Gabriel García Márquez

The Story of a Shipwrecked SailorThe Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it was published as a magazine series in 1955, the truth of the Caldas' accident ran counter to the official government report, and Gabriel García Márquez left Colombia to preserve his own safety. The official story was that a storm caused the vessel to partially capsize, sweeping six sailors overboard, with five drowning. The truth was that the day was clear, and the boat was overloaded with contraband as gifts to family and perhaps to sell on the Colombian black market, and a strong series of waves knocked the boat out of balance.

Velasco became a folk hero for surviving ten days at sea in an unequipped life raft. The book details each day at sea; the long nights, the sharks circling the boat, the tremendous hunger and thirst, and the internal battle to keep overcoming the urge to let himself die aboard the raft. When he finally sees land, he is so dehydrated and exhausted that it takes hours for him to believe that it isn't another hallucination. He describes his rescue by coastal peasants and his immediate rise to fame in his home country.

I read this book in Spanish and found it absolutely fascinating-- Márquez is able to describe the sameness and boredom of ten days at sea with his storyteller's flourish, and the book never drags. He wrote this before he was a well-known author, and even though it was ghostwritten for the sailor, it has lines of his future greatness within. The vocabulary was typically demanding, and I certainly expanded my knowledge of seafaring terminology in reading this short book.

If you can read it in the original Spanish, it's worth the trouble. I've read some of his short stories and feel like I could take on one of his novels now-- there is nothing like reading a book with the original nuances of language, and Márquez is truly an artist with words.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America ModernFlapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Flapper" takes the reader through the post-WWI decade that saw America's youth discard the values that brought their elders into war, and instead embarked on a self-indulgent party where the stock market and hemlines soared. It was a decade of extremes: Prohibition, automobiles, women voting, advertising taking hold-- a tremendous time of social change that made America far more recognizable to today's readers than the time which preceded it.

Zeitz, a historian, sets the historical table nicely by introducing us to the generation just above the youth of the 1920s. The contrast between Victorian/Edwardian values and the life of the flapper could not have been more extreme, and he does an excellent job of enumerating the differences, even to the point of quoting desperate parents who had lost control of teenage children to fast cars, bathtub gin, and casual sex. This generation of youth were called "Moderns" in their own time, and indeed, their parents' reaction to their exploits seems quite modern even in 2014. Zeitz also does a fine job of detailing the societal influences that led to this new freedom: the availability and privacy of cars, the liberation of women with voting parity, and the almost-open invitation to imbibe the forbidden fruit of alcohol when it was legally prohibited.

The only issue I have with this book is that Zeitz relies almost entirely on celebrities to describe 1920s culture. He devotes chapters to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Lois Long, and various movie stars. Celebrity culture is much different than how the other millions of Americans lived, and apart from a few quotes out of a Muncie, Indiana newspaper, he illustrates the details of the decade with celebrities. These celebrities tended to great extremes: Louise Brooks of movie fame, for example, was wilder than Lindsey Lohan at her worst, and the Fitzgeralds suffered from mental illness and alcoholism even at their best. I would have preferred a balance of regular folk to describe the reality of those years.

It's still compelling reading. The Fitzgeralds, Chanel, and the movie stars were no strangers, but I hadn't read about Lois Long previously, so I found her story interesting-- she was a magazine culture writer using a pseudonym in those years. If you have interest in the social climate of the 1920s or wonder how things got as wild as they did in those years, Zeitz explains it well. It doesn't have a happy ending, but in that, it gives one pause to consider moderation in all things.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget ItFluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who has been trickling some Spanish into most days for the past few years, this book was an interesting take on a different approach that might move things along a little faster. Based on the neuroscientific principle that we learn better when we can attach an idea to an image, Wyner's technique has the learner making hundreds of flash cards, each with a unique image to tie the word or idea to that picture, in order to firmly plant it in the memory.

This book is more of a companion to his website, fluent-forever.com, which offers free and paid resources for learning any language. Because he's successfully learned six languages in order to work in opera, I have no doubt that his techniques work well to move from beginner to fluency-- the speed depends on the learner and the amount of time one is willing to devote to language acquisition.

The drawbacks: it will take hours of work for someone to create the number of flashcards with the amount of detail to make each one a real memory tool. He describes a way to do this on the computer and export the cards to your smartphone; the key is to use unique images that trigger your own memories: for example, the word "mother" would have a picture of your own mother, "car" your own car, etc. This eliminates the need for English, because his idea is teaching the brain to think in the target language rather than translate. There is also a heavy reliance on technology for learning. If someone reading the book is not comfortable with technology, this will not be a helpful resource. He promotes his technique as the very best way, but people have been learning other languages for millenia-- there are other ways that work; this one may for some people and not for others.

It's worth reading if you're a tech savant willing to put in the time to set up the system for yourself. There is much more on the website than the book, which makes the book more of a marketing tool for the website than a stand-alone resource. I haven't quite gotten used to that 21st century aspect of the printed word, but there it is. Have a look if you're struggling with foreign languages, but you might be happier looking at the website first and deciding for yourself if the system is right for you.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another Path, by Gladys Taber

Another PathAnother Path by Gladys Taber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gladys Taber was born in 1899, roughly the same year as my great-grandmother. I read her columns toward the end of her career in a magazine my mother received, back when I was a child in the 1970s. I remember her sensible yet sensitive tone, and how she was in step with nature, the seasons, and the quiet of home. In her case, the home was Stillmmeadow, a 1690 farmhouse she shared with her companion Jill; both stayed on after husbands died or divorced and raised their children together.

Another Path is her memoir of going through the aftermath of Jill's sudden death. She describes leaving the hospital in bright sunshine, feeling stunned that life around her carries on, overwhelmed with the paperwork, exhausted after doing even the smallest of tasks. In short, she eloquently wrote of my experience last month after my mother died suddenly-- her experience and mine were so similar that it was an enormous relief to know that I wasn't going crazy; that all the strange reactions were within the normal range of sudden grief.

Her remedies have helped me, too. She advises going outside and spending time in the normalcy and beauty of nature, to appreciate the order, the chaos, and the cyclical nature of the world. She also advises to resist the urge to isolate oneself, and instead to strengthen friendships and form new ones. I've found both of these to be tremendously helpful in easing the pain of loss. It doesn't make the grief go away-- nothing can do that-- but it puts the grief into perspective so that it doesn't take over one's whole being.

This book has been long out of print, but if you can find a copy, it is a touching tribute to her companion as well as a very comforting short read after experiencing a life-changing death. One of my favorite quotes: When you walk a dark path, it is a good thing to know there are footprints on the soggy turf. Someone walked this way before, and you, in turn, leave footprints for another who will soon stumble this very way. At times, someone may be close enough to reach out a hand and say, "There's a bad spot here."

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son, by Willard Sterne Randall

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His SonA Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son by Willard Sterne Randall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A Little Revenge" is the polar opposite of a hagiography. Randall's carefully researched biography on the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his illegitimate son William serves to pull yet another founding father from his exalted pedestal and examine him in the cold light of his own actions.

William was the product of one of the many Parisian affairs of Benjamin's youth; in order to make the best of things, Benjamin provided for the impoverished young woman and saw that the boy received an education. On meeting him midway through his childhood, he took a liking to the bright young man and accelerated his efforts to transform an embarrassing reality into a respectable young gentleman: William was educated at affordable yet challenging schools and eventually passed the English equvalent of the bar, becoming a respected attorney in England and then America.

His early education in England left him with an affinity and loyalty for the country which stood in direct opposition to his father's American patriotism, and the book focuses on the schism that developed in the gathering years of the American revolution. William rose to the position of Colonial Governor of New Jersey under King George while his father was the patriarch of the revolutionary movement. We all know which side won, and Randall's writing is very sympathetic to the hardships faced by Loyalists who were eventually forced to emigrate back to England in order to avoid persecution or murder by their former neighbors or even their own families. William was among this number.

While the elder Franklin was indisputably a venerable statesman and diplomat, he conducted his personal life in a way that few will find palatable. He ignored his common-law wife in favor of another family he lived with in Paris, neglected his daughter, was indifferent to his son until he saw personal gain in raising him to respectability, and put political gain before family to the point where his son nearly died in Tory prison while Benjamin reveled in the luxury of Paris.

If colonial and revolutionary America interest you, this is an eye-opening read on the complexities of one of its key characters. Certainly no one is perfect, but one might be hard-pressed to find a founding father more flawed than Benjamin Franklin.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

Four QuartetsFour Quartets by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish there were a way to give more than five stars, or something beyond stars. My reaction to this work goes so far past the dichotomy of "like/dislike" that any stab at a review or an opinion falls well short of the reality.

Decades ago, I remember reading one of these four poems in an advanced English literature class, and it snapped me out of the haze of adolescence into something resembling total awareness. All the words were familiar, but arranged in a way that shook me awake. One quote stuck in my conscious and subconscious permanently: we shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

As a Unitarian Universalist, later in life I took Emerson's fine advice to “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” During the many years I've been doing this, Eliot's quote above found its way into my own words three separate times-- nothing else is repeated amongst the thousands of quotes taken from all I read.

This month, I read Four Quartets the morning after my mother died, as a way to somehow integrate the enormity of what had happened and get some of the pain to move. The themes in the poems of time, life, death, immortality, destruction, and love helped more than anyone else's words of comfort or hope. It helped me frame a tragic event in a larger context so that I could move forward, internally and externally.

Another reviewer said that this work will echo in your head for the rest of your life. It's one of the most enduring and important things I've ever read.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fall of 1995, I heard a paradigm-shifting lecture delivered by a philosophy professor who happened to be a lay leader at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Titled "Paul's Little Invention," he laid out some of the history of the early church and explained why Paul, not Jesus' own followers, got the foothold in Rome and created a new religion in Jesus' name only. Through the ideas he presented, I was able to finally pinpoint the theological and philosophical problems I had with mainstream Christianity and find what was left of truth for myself. I blame Paul for my split with the church of my youth, and he's probably responsible for many similar disillusionments over the last two millenia.

Aslan's book is an expansion of the ideas I first encountered in 1995. He meticulously explains the social, political, and religious climate in which the historical Jesus lived and taught, and through this, it is simple to see why he gained a following and what made him stand out from many other miracle workers and self-proclaimed messiahs in the area. Even just understanding that the Roman punishment for sedition was crucifixion makes very clear what was happening the last week of Jesus' life and removes some of the mystery.

In my opinion, the greatest loss of the early (and probably contemporary) church is the sidelining of Jesus' brother James, who took up his ministry in Judea and continued to practice Hebrew law while gaining followers within Judaism. Because the early church felt it necessary to emphasize Mary's perpetual virginity, the fact that as a married woman she would have had a number of other children over time was conveniently ignored, and James faded into ecclesiastical obscurity. But contemporary writings of his time paint him as a pious, law-abiding, inspiring figure even to church leaders, despite the fact that he was an illiterate peasant living in extreme poverty in accordance with his brother's teachings. The world is poorer for the lack of illumination on his example.

Zealot clarified a lot of points for me about the history of the times, the timeline of events, and the reasons why certain paths were taken in the early church. Paul was reviled by practicing Jews for his refutation of Hebrew law; once the Temple was destroyed in 70AD and Jews scattered through the region, Paul's teachings gained significance in the gentile world; James had already been put to death.

Read this if you are interested in Biblical history and want to know how things came about. A third of the book at the end contains extensive notes and references. I agree with Aslan's conclusion: the real historical Jesus of Nazareth is much more compelling a person than Paul's little invention.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Vile BodiesVile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set at the crossroads of the last gasps of Edwardian propriety and the close of the Jazz Age, Vile Bodies skewers the Bright Young Things of 1920s England. These are the young survivors of the first World War who mean to have fun, because who knows what could happen next?

Waugh himself was a few years older than the very real BYTs from which he draws his characters, and in real life, had a mixture of admiration and revulsion as he observed them at near distance. These 18-to-25-year-olds leveraged their families' excellent social standing and wealth to live lives of great excess and ultimately emptiness. Some escaped through respectable marriage and settled down into upperclass convention after a few years of wild living, and others were forever broken.

One might want to consult a few notes about 1920s England before embarking on this short novel; it's helpful to know what the political, social, religious, and economic milieus were in terms of understanding some of the sidebar action, such as the Angels, which would fall flat without a point of reference.

As with so much of Waugh's work, he manages to capture adroitly a fleeting moment in history via his fiction: here, it's the very last of carefree 1920s society before the realities of the Great Depression and World War II change everything. His dry sense of humor and way of setting up a scene to deliver a fantastic punchline are simply delicious. Well worth reading if this era fascinates you as it does me.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

The World Without UsThe World Without Us by Alan Weisman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if humans no longer existed on Earth? If we evolved up to this point, and then suddenly were gone? How would different species fare? Which would prosper and which would die? What would happen to our feats of engineering, our art, our architecture? Our houses? Our things?

Weisman answers all these questions and more from his scientific perch, from which he often moves to take us to Pacific atolls encrusted with plastic, to Chernobyl where wildlife, however mutated, has reclaimed the area; to a primeval forest preserved for centuries by Polish royalty, to bridges, buildings, graveyards, nuclear waste sites, ancient Egypt and Peru, the bottom of the oceans and the outer reaches of interstellar space.

We humans have left a massive footprint on our own planet and have managed to beam something of ourselves out into the cosmos as well, but the final word is that we are not indelible, and that our mark will, with time, fade into obscurity for other species to discover and ponder. This isn't a plea for conservation or ecological measures, though the case is made through simple factual presentation; one leaves this book behind pondering how our waste-creating species turns such a blind eye to the tremendous damage we do. All of it is reversible, though-- just not with us around.

Humans add one million newborns to our numbers on Earth every four days. Every four days. The planet continues to accommodate us as best it can, but one wonders about a tipping point. Your interests in science, travel, history, and the human condition all converge here for a very thought-provoking, sobering, and anything but nihilistic read.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Blind Man's Garden, by Nadeem Aslam

The Blind Man's GardenThe Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tense, poetic, disturbing, indelible. THE BLIND MAN'S GARDEN takes place in a small city in Pakistan in the weeks and months following 9/11, when President Bush has vowed that "we will smoke them out." This is that experience from the other side, and the Americans don't look so good.

The blind man in question is still sighted at the beginning, and thinks his son and foster son are going off on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, when in fact they are joining the counter-militia that threatens their peaceful life as sons of a former schoolmaster. The school in question has been commandeered by a radical Islamist faction and churns out zealous young men and women prepared to fight the West for the supremacy of their fringe version of Islam. Complicating matters further, son Jeo is married to Naheed, who is secretly in love with foster brother Mikal.

The contrast between the beautiful gardens of the school grounds and the terror of the torture chamber is upsetting and chilling. To read this is to better understand how the West has kicked over a beehive; a region that has been in tenuous balance between peace and warfare for millenia does not react well to outside force.

Nor do the people in this book, who represent the many faces of modern Islamic society. This book is graphic, unsettling, and important. Aslam challenges the reader to put aside preconceived notions and take all sides into account before re-forming one's opinion of right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. If you are interested in the situation in the Middle East from a non-Western perspective, although this is fiction, the voices are real.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War, by Norman Longmate

How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World WarHow We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War by Norman Longmate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can find many books on the history of World War II, from the perspective of each country involved, to the political undertones, to the experiences of officers and footsoldiers. This book is unique, written in 1970, in a sweeping attempt to explain how the war in England was won on the homefront.

This book was somewhat personal for me, in that some of the artifacts in it were common items from my childhood: we would go through large shoeboxes of pictures and ephemera, and at one point, we found ration coupon books and played "war shops." Somehow as children of the 1970s, the story had come down to us about our English relatives' hardship in finding the most basic of foods and clothing as the war dragged on for six long years; an emigrant cousin or two brought her ration books with her "just in case," and they stayed in a cabinet for decades until we brought them out.

Reading about how English ingenuity used garden hose and rope to replace failed bicycle tires, any textiles at all to replace worn clothing, and hundreds of other make-do efforts, made me appreciate the civilian sacrifice all the more. The United States is currently fighting on several fronts, but civilians have been asked to give up nothing, and we are not particularly aware of the realities of these wars. The English fought hunger and deprivation at home to spare more for their sons and husbands on the front lines, with very little complaining and a chin-up attitude I still find in my family today.

At over 700 pages, Longmate covered nearly all possible aspects of home life: kitchen, cooking, clothing, shopping, movies, popular music, the influx of other Allied troops, books, the media, school, the evacuation of children from dense cities, family relations, and far more. Because it was written just a few decades after it happened, he interviewed women and former children who had these experiences, and thus includes firsthand accounts that are no longer possible, so as a historical document this is rich with information.

Much exists about this war, but reading about how it permeated every aspect of civilian life allows a 21st century reader to truly understand how it was the cultural touchpoint of a generation. It is well worth the time to read through it and reflect.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day of Honey, a Memoir of Food, Love, and War, by Annia Ciezadlo

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and WarDay of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ciezadlo's crowded, thoughtful, fragrant memoir of her life as a newlywed in Baghdad and later Beirut is loud with bombings and ends with recipes. This is a memoir of everyday life in several middle eastern war zones, where people turn to their food traditions to counter the constant threat of death around every corner. At one point in the book, Ciezadlo makes dinner for her husband and refugee guests while a sniper takes shots from their apartment roof. The recipe is in the back of the book.

This book is about the survival of families, neighborhoods, traditions, and foodways. She learns to cook on hot plates in vermin-infested hotels, finds the real Iraqi food traditions beyond pale restaurant imitations, and learns the nuances of a 10,000 year old culture in the process. There is a point where she has fallen in love with the culture so much that she decides to stay in a very dangerous area long after even her husband has left for New York, and she has to choose between her head and her heart.

It's the core of the book, really; the complete irrationality of war juxtaposed with everyday human living, and how easy it is to believe that everything will be fine if there's a good meal to be made. She explains the political conflict well and helps us understand Sunni vs. Shiite, the different warring factions and the way loyalties can change instantly with the ever-shifting power, but the truth of the book is in the everyday people she introduces.

If the political situation in the Middle East has been hard for you to comprehend, DAY OF HONEY is a very real way to begin understanding the human impact of warfare. Ciezadlo will see that you care about the people, as well: one cab driver pleads with her, "We drive American cars, watch American films, buy American clothes. We love America! WHY DOESN'T AMERICA LOVE US?" Read this book and you will find much to admire in the strength of Iraq's people.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living Well is the Best Revenge, by Calvin Tomkins

Have you ever known people who did everything well, and in such a new, interesting way that it inspired you to live differently and better?

This short, exquisite biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy serves to extend the enigma that they took with them everywhere they lived. At under 150 pages, it is only a taste of their story, but it was written in 1962 following a series of interviews with them and their friends, so it paints a rather different and more poignant picture than Vaill's extensive biography EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, written long after Gerald and Sara Murphy had died.

If you don't know the Murphys, perhaps you should: if you enjoy F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, or indeed any of the expatriate writers, artists, musicians and dancers who flourished in 1920s Paris, the Murphys are the common thread who connected them all. About a decade older than their young creative friends, they created a milieu of stability, kindness, and understanding cherished by the younger set, many of whom did not enjoy the support of their families in chasing their creative dreams. The Murphys' excellent taste, style, and indeed their relationship itself inspired novels stories, paintings, dances, and the lives of those around them. In turn, the Murphys truly enjoyed being surrounded by the creative energy of their young friends; their children grew up entertained by the most interesting people of the age.

Without the Murphys' influence, it's hard to imagine how Paris in the 1920s would have had much significance at all. Many of the creative friendships were forged at their Paris atelier or in their home on the Cap d'Antibes, which they made fashionable by attracting the Paris set to the seaside for summers. They lived this idyllic life until tuberculosis struck their youngest, Patrick; they then moved the party to his sanatorium, where all the greats visited and kept up the Murphys' spirits for the long 18 months of treatment. After his release, they enjoyed a few more years of good health; the stock market then crashed, many expats could no longer afford Paris, and little Patrick relapsed and died. Their older son Baoth died shortly after from a brief illness at boarding school, and the Murphys moved home with their daughter to New York. Gerald returned to work at his father's company, making Mark Cross into a successful Park Avenue enterprise through deploying his unique taste and aesthetic; despite his indifference, the business enjoyed unprecedented profit.

The book has a generous inset of family album photos which you are unlikely to see elsewhere. The Murphys' prolific photography reminds one of Facebook with all the candid shots of people having the time of their lives; even in their family album, they are decades ahead of their time. Tellingly, the album ends abruptly with their 1933 return to New York City.

The quote which haunts me most is an exchange between Gerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps explains best why the Murphys resonate with me: "I remember saying to him that for me, only the invented part of life was satisfying, only the unrealistic part. Things happened to you-- sickness, birth, Zelda in Prangins, Patrick in the sanatorium, Father Wiborg's death-- these things were realistic, and you couldn't do anything about them. 'Do you mean you don't accept those things?' Scott asked. I replied that of course I accepted them, but that I didn't feel they were the important things really."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you've followed my reviews for a while, you'll have noted my lament that modern literature has little to offer the bibliophile; that modern authors churn out inch-deep pap to satisfy the trade paper crowd and their editors, and that the art of storytelling has been left in the mostly-inept hands of Hollywood screenwriters.

However.

This book is the exception to all my sneering at modern literature, or what passes for it. David Mitchell has written a modern classic in CLOUD ATLAS, a sweeping, stunning, deep dive of a book that will leave a discerning reader gasping with recognition and finding connections within the stories long after finishing a first reading.

CLOUD ATLAS opens in the maritime 1850s, breaks off abruptly and jumps to a musician's home in 1930s Belgium, picks up again in troubled coastal California in the 1970s, then to postmodern Korea in a near-distant future, and finally post-apocalyptic Hawaii several centuries from now-- and then all the stories fold back inward in the reverse order. The characters are different in each subplot, but there are common threads, common themes, memories, struggles, incidents, major and minor similarities that tie superficially disjointed narratives very closely together, but in such a subtle way that one must read with the mind of a problem-solver in order to put the pieces together and discover what has really happened: to the world, to the characters, to time.

Some of the criticism postulates that the stories are too loosely connected. If that's the impression you've come away with, you are not reading closely or carefully enough. Nearly every detail foreshadows or calls back to another element, underscoring the profound theme of interconnectedness throughout time.

Mitchell's writing reminds me of another favorite writer with a similar ability to appeal to the masses while putting another level of material much deeper for those who wish to mine it, and the spark of recognition when one does find the jewel within is one of the sublime experiences of reading truly good writing. There are elements here of historical fiction, suspense, science fiction, romance, drama, intrigue -- but above and beyond it all, beautifully written, poetic prose that never speaks down to the reader.

Well done, David Mitchell. You have changed my mind and restored my faith in the ability of a cerebral contemporary writer to create something worth spending weeks reading and re-reading. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece. If you enjoy challenging, classic literature that will astonish you, make you think, re-think, question, and discuss, please make this one of the next books you pick up.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Education of a Gardener, by Russell Page

Russell Page was one of the premier landscape architects and designers of the 20th century, and created gardens throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As my family has some history in this area of concern, including our own English gardener, I grew up knowing of Mr. Page and his unique style, and had the privilege of visiting some of the exquisite gardens he created.

Perhaps it's this shared history or knowledge that made the book so profoundly appealing to me. For someone who does not know plants by their Latin names, this book may be a bit of a muddle trying to picture what he means when he talks of drifts of this interspersed with islands of that. As I have the almost-useless party trick of recalling the horticultural lexicon safely stored away from earliest youth, I was able to picture the gardens in beautiful technicolor, imagining the progression of bloom and scent just as he described. The book has runs of pictures, all in black and white, but as the gardens were created before color film was common, these are likely the only pictures extant of his creations at their finest.

Page was an artist of the first order. He painted with trees, flowers, shrubs, and hardscape, but he created art as surely as any of the great masters. He wrote as beautifully as he planted; the final chapter in the book acknowledges that he ought to have called the book "Other People's Gardens" had the name not already been taken, and he proceeds to reward the reader with the most lovely creation of all as he poetically imagines a personal garden which his peregrinations had never allowed him to have. One finishes the book hoping that he had the opportunity to create the garden of his dreams.

Friday, August 15, 2014

An Illustrated Guide to Soccer and Spanish, by Elliott Turner

An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & SpanishAn Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish by Elliott Turner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming short e-book on the intricacies of soccer, but explained partially in English and partially in Spanish. That makes it nearly perfect.

So does the Brian Phillips foreword. Brian Phillips wrote one of my favorite web articles of all time on the USMNT fashion photo shoot done at the home of my local soccer club, and I've been one of his readers ever since. Elliott Turner has a similar sense of humor, so I'm pleased to have discovered him.

Turner takes us through the team positions, the coaches, referees, fans, stadium, field, and equipment in both languages. The intent of the book isn't just humor, though-- he's looking to grow the game in the US through bringing the Latino fútbol culture closer to the growing US soccer mania. If the two fan groups could understand each other just a little bit better, we could become another great force in the world of soccer.

At under 100 pages with at least a quarter of those as a glossary, this is a quick read and a rather important one for anyone who follows the game here and south of the US border. The terminology is fascinating; you'll pick up a bit of Spanish through the words and the charming illustrations. Elliott Turner: más, ¡por favor!

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Gap Creek, by Robert Morgan

My part-time job the last couple years in college was reshelving books in the main campus library. I remember coming across a series in the "how to write books" range that was very fascinating; it was something like THE REAL 1870s, THE REAL 1910s, etc. and its intention was to give period-piece writers authentic details of life during the eras of which they were writing. I remember checking out several of them and being far more fascinated with the details than I would have been any fiction written from them.

I don't recall the actual series name, but I'll bet Robert Morgan does, because GAP CREEK contains at least 40% pure source detail from THE REAL 1890s volume. Want to know what death from intestinal worms looks like? How to butcher a hog? How to birth a baby without help? Hand-wash a load of clothes? Scald, pluck, and dress a turkey? Morgan has you covered, excruciating detail by excruciating detail, leaving absolutely nothing out. If he had, this would have been the shortest of short stories.

The blurb indicates that this is "the story of a marriage," but it's really the story of one baffling 17-year-old girl who marries a fellow she's met twice, moves off the family mountain to the scary valley, and keeps on working hard despite flood, fire, and pestilence. Literally. She battles all three in excruciating detail, some more than once.

There's something of a plot, but it doesn't come to much. I think we're supposed to sympathize with the main female character through all her troubles, but it's hard to even understand what motivates her because she is written so woodenly. The supporting characters are little more than paper dolls-- the husband's behavior is so irrational that he's almost robotic.

The author is from the beautiful western North Carolina Appalachian area where this takes place, so the setting is very true-to-form, but this is the only part of "write what you know" he's taken to heart. I'm sure he enjoyed researching 1890s Appalachia, but when it comes to writing fiction about it, I would much prefer THE REAL 1890s.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fútbol: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, by Joshua H. Nadel

Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin AmericaFútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America by Joshua H. Nadel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everyone who follows soccer knows that it's a really big deal in Latin America. But why, and why there?

I attended a reading by the author, who is local to me, the week this book was released, and knew at once that this is not a run-of-the-mill sports book. Nadel is a university professor of history, and his book contains as much Latin American history as it does soccer. You'll learn about the stadium in Chile used as a concentration camp, how soccer stabilized and destabilized governments, and how classism and racism were defined and defied by the game.

His writing is excellent, and while there is a lot of information here, a good history instructor knows to emphasize the story. You will learn more about how soccer caught on in Latin America and changed the narrative for Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Honduras, and Mexico. Vignettes on notable players past and present run through the text; you'll learn a bit more about some of the great names in the game.

Speaking to the author, his next project is on the history of women's soccer, to which he devotes a chapter in this book. I look forward to it.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How to Learn a New Language With a Used Brain, by Lynn McBride

How to Learn a New Language with a Used BrainHow to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain by Lynn McBride
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This very short, practical guide to adult language learning had most of the advice I've read before, but with some new resources to try.

The author moved from the US to France some years ago, so the skew in the book is toward adult learners of French; though the techniques are applicable to any target language, the examples are French. The advice is not new: take a class, don't be afraid to talk, expose yourself to the language on television and print as often as possible, tune the radio to the language you're trying to learn, etc.

Some of the online resources were new to me, which made it worth the book to discover them. Because I already take a class, listen/watch television/read papers and books in my target language, the more advanced resources were very helpful to me toward my goal of getting from textbook to fluency.

This book can be easily read at one sitting, then kept by the computer to start looking up resources you may find helpful. It was encouraging to have the many stories of adults who have successfully added to their languages; if you plan to be one of them, this short read may help you as well.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and Flats, by Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and FlatsImperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and Flats by Stacy Horn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Current memoirs seem to fall into one of two categories: stuntblogging, or embarking on a contrived project in order to produce quasi-amusing memories for a book deal; or research-memoir hybrids, in which the author weaves his or her own experience into a historical retrospective of the larger topic.

IMPERFECT HARMONY falls into the latter category, since I have sworn off of stuntbloggers for the foreseeable future. I think if I had read this reporter/writer's other works, her personal story would have resonated more with me as a familiar voice, but this was my first time reading her, and I found her to be annoying and borderline offensive.

The research narrative in the book is very well done, as would be expected of someone with her journalism background. She has clearly done her reading and conducted interviews with some of the luminaries of choral music, and the information she presents is enlightening and very relevant to those of us who appreciate and participate in group singing.

The personal story, unfortunately, takes away from the cadence of the history; she is either whining about her status as an aging single New Yorker (which I suspect is topical for her other memoirs) or constantly reaffirming that while she is singing ecclesiastical works, she is in no way a religious believer. I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and even I was offended at the dismissive tone toward the religious content of the pieces she performs. She seems extremely uncomfortable with acknowledging that a set of very particular beliefs are the reason much of this music exists, and I found her smug tone very off-putting as she would translate a Latin text with the caveat of "not that I believe any of this nonsense, of course." She sings religious music in a church-based choir.

There's some excellent information on centuries-old to contemporary choral composition, including a lovely section on Morten Lauridsen and his transcendental "O Magnum Mysterium," one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever created. The bibiography at the back is a good resource for more historical background on the choral tradition.

I feel like I've written this review before, since I've read several memoirs in the past few years, mostly by unhappy and self-absorbed older New York women. I suspect fans of Ms. Horn would enjoy knowing more about her personal choral journey, but I didn't.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It , by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of ItThe Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-written and well-presented scientific and practical guide to willpower, self-control, and the neuroscience behind it all.

McGonigal writes engagingly about the fallibility of humans to make great plans and view the future with optimism, and yet fail to achieve seemingly simple goals time and time again. But she explains here WHY we fail, why systems set up to help us succeed are undermining our efforts, and some simple (and often paradoxical) shortcuts to go around our neurocircuitry and achieve the outcome we're looking for.

The experiments and studies she references are interesting; some are quite familiar if you've read the Heath books on change or similar works. Along with the explanations and the science, McGonigal provides practical implementations to help you stop bad habits or implement better ones.

This is a fascinating read about what's going on in the brain when we try to make changes, and an important read if you struggle with lifestyle issues or addictions of any kind, if you work with people who have trouble making changes stick -- or even if you just want to know a little more about how your brain works for and against you.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had read this book in high school, I would have finished it thinking, "Wow. Well, at least this sort of thing doesn't happen anymore, because we're thankfully beyond religious fundamentalism."

Then I moved to southern Alabama to go to college, where all of O'Connor's character types are living, breathing people then and today. For literary purposes, some of their traits are exaggerated-- but not terribly. I had a literature professor my freshman year, before I'd had enough cultural exposure there, try to explicate "Southern grotesque," and I'm sure we read an O'Connor short story as part of that concept. It was not until I lived and worked among rural Southern people that the deeply-rooted mindsets about which she wrote became living, breathing entities. The intellectuals, the violence, the squaring-off between urban and rural people, the fear-based religious zealotry, and the young people trying to decide on which side they stand while not realizing that the choice has been made for them: all of them are real.

I live in a different part of the South now, and reading O'Connor's three longer works and short stories brought the dawning of my realization back to me. She writes as an enlightened native, and people who have not wrestled with these angels may not understand the archetypes or the significance of the struggle. But if you want to know what goes on down those sunny, dusty dirt roads in the rural South, these works will explain the old mindsets and the new. In this world, a well-raised person is just as likely to beat, rape, and murder as someone raised among criminals, and he's likely to have a plausible reason for doing so.

O'Connor wrote this in the mid-20th century, so you'll encounter some racial language that is part of its times and highly offensive now.

It's not a long book, and the shorter stories are quickly read, but this book takes a long time to digest and none of it is easy going. I would recommend having lighter fare for when you need to take a break. You'll finish with a profound recognition and understanding of a highly misunderstood corner of our nation.



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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has many thoughtful reviews by readers far more qualified than me to judge the book on its inherent merit as a social commentary by a Nigerian immigrant to America.

Adichie describes the richness and vibrance of Nigerian city culture vividly, so that even a reader like me who has never been to Lagos gets a true feel of middle- and upper-class life there. She then contrasts Lagos to the northeastern United States, where her character Ifemelu emigrates for education and stays for work.

The story is panoramic, covering many people, locations, and decades. Her Nigerian characters have depth and connection, while her American characters seem more two-dimensional; it is hard to discern their motives or feel that Ifemelu is more than an observer in their lives, even though she has friendships and lengthy relationships with black and white Americans. The narrative improves a great deal when she returns to Nigeria subtly changed and must re-integrate into her native society.

Where the book packs a punch is with its almost clinical examination of race in America by someone who Americans read as black, but who does not identify herself as anything but Nigerian until she arrives in the US. Ifemelu navigates the perplexing, infuriating, confusing, and sometimes nasty question of race in America with an intelligence and detachment that eventually crystallizes into her need to return home.

This is certainly a book worth reading to understand how the United States treats her immigrants and how our race issues look and feel to people joining us from other countries where class, not race, defines someone. You'll come away with a lot of questions and perhaps a new appreciation of how difficult it is to be an outsider here.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

1939: The Last Season of Peace: The Last Season of Peace by Angela Lambert

1939: The Last Season of Peace: The Last Season of Peace1939: The Last Season of Peace: The Last Season of Peace by Angela Lambert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having recently read Anne deCourcy's 1939: THE LAST SEASON, it was hard for me to imagine that another book with an almost identical title would have anything different to offer.

Lambert's work, however, takes advantage of its author's timeliness in finding these former debutantes back in the 1980s, when the ladies were still up and about in their late 60s, and interviews them extensively on their experiences and their lives. Where deCourcy relies on newspaper articles to interweave the history with the social narrative, Lambert gives us the ladies' own voices, and that makes the book.

They are charming, witty, self-possessed, and absolutely frank in discussing their families, friends, and doings in that summer of 1939. Some knew all about the coming war while others astonishingly were so sheltered as to know nothing whatever. To a woman, they remembered where they were when the war was announced. Unlike deCourcy, Lambert takes us a bit further than 1939 to tell us that part of their upbringing was to volunteer and to join, so that the volunteer services were very full of upper-class young women by the time the war started.

The book is packed with vignettes of that time, beautiful descriptions, conversations, and people from a time that is gone forever. An appendix lists the slang of the time so that you can competently speak with a 1939 debutante.

If you'd like to hear from some of the men and women in this book and of that summer, there is a fantastic documentary on them here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISg0_...

Its charm is best summarized in the final words, quoting one of the debs speaking to her granddaughter: "You know, Sophie, I expect you're right about us. We were ignorant and selfish and spoilt; we saw nothing wrong in idleness. But I tell you this. We did our trivial things in the *most* satisfactory way!"

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the TimeOverwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

OVERWHELMED chronicles the current sociological trend of women holding so many roles that they lose sight of who they are and what they really want to be doing. Schulte, as a Washington Post writer, holds a demanding more-than-full-time job, but is also trying to nurture a marriage, raise children, stay involved in school, and find time to fulfill herself outside of these roles.

As with many of these self-exploratory books with problems that most of the world would like to have, it's rather hard to swallow the whining of an upper-middle class professional woman who has chosen to have it all, then is upset when it isn't easy. Unlike many of these books (Gretchen Rubin's HAPPINESS PROJECT springs immediately to mind), Schulte does acknowledge that role overload isn't optional for those who live near or below the poverty level, working multiple low-wage jobs while raising children. She delivers a scathing indictment of the American child care system, where quality care costs more than college tuition in many locations and forces talented women to stay home with their children rather than spend their entire salaries on child care.

From a policy perspective, it's very well-written as one would expect from a Washington Post writer; it's also very depressing to see how US politics have failed women in favor of supporting a mythical family structure that serves no one well. She explores how other countries have legislated gender equity in the workplace as well as providing state-supported high quality child care and education so that parents can easily move in and out of the workplace during the parenting years.

I wish there had been less of Schulte's own story; it would have been a far more readable book without the navel-gazing, but I realize that this is a genre that sells a personal story along with the facts. The solutions she offers at the end are barely adequate. Without reform, we're going to be reading this same book 50 years from now, unless we've all moved to Scandinavia by then.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by David Sally, Chris Anderson

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is WrongThe Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by David Sally
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Soccer is a team game, but it is one prone to being decided by sheer, staggering individual ineptitude. Every team has had one, a player whose very presence chills a fan's blood...."

Although this is a book on statistics, the commentary between the data points is what makes it worth reading, but probably what will make this book become quickly dated as well, despite the author's suppositions that many aspects of the game have reached stasis or a critical mass and will not change for decades.

Many of the critiques of this work point out that one can interpret statistics in any fashion to support one's hypothesis, and this book is no exception to that adage. He uses statistics to explain the relative uselessness of managers, then uses another set of data to explain why the right manager is indispensable. He makes my point that defense is more important than most people realize; while they're watching the striker do his job, a defender is working equally hard to prevent him from doing so.

I'm not sure everything I knew about soccer was wrong, but it's a catchy title. If you are someone who enjoys numbers and analysis, this book will bring you into the modern age of sports analytics and help you sort out what matters from what doesn't; nearly everything is being measured now, and no one is quite sure what to do with all the data. The game is becoming less mysterious and more precise, however, and reading this will help you understand what's behind the numbers.

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

1939: The Last Season by Anne de Courcy

1939: The Last Season1939: The Last Season by Anne de Courcy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always had a fascination with the time between the wars; I grew up hearing firsthand about what it was like to grow up in that time from my grandmother and her sister. This book takes me back to all of that; the women described here put me so much in mind of them.

DeCourcy begins innocently enough, describing the diaphanous lives of the young ladies of England's upper class all a-flutter at being presented to the King and Queen on the occasion of their society debuts. We read of sumptuous menus, daring beaus, exhausted chaperones, and too much champagne. Intertwined with the furs and music, however, is the growing threat of war, and so skillfully does she shift the narrative from the silly-young dance floor to the deadly Axis threats, that we hardly notice how imminent the danger has become.

The pathos is in the fact that life did indeed go on throughout the spring and summer of 1939. Traditions were observed as always, people took their usual holidays, wrote letters, dined, and danced. But they also gathered food, bought sturdy clothing, and made arrangements for their children and pets should the worst happen.

Of course it ends simply with a transcript of the King's radio address informing his subjects that England is at war with Germany (have tissues ready at the end; it's difficult). We know the rest. How beautiful that last summer must have been to savor in the dark days that followed, and that is the reason to read this book-- it describes beautifully the very last months of an era that is gone forever and cherished by the few left who remember.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey into the Heart of the American Game by Jim Haner

Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey into the Heart of the American GameSoccerhead: An Accidental Journey into the Heart of the American Game by Jim Haner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Haner's story is his own of a dad pressed into service as a youth league soccer coach. The team turns out to have serious talent, so he has to step up his own game as a coach in order to keep up with the players, and in learning about the game, he uncovers the United States' rich, forgotten, and unappreciated history of soccer.

He skillfully interweaves his son's story of success on the field with the story of soccer's rise and fall in the US, with a lot of focus on the Washington, DC area where he lives and coaches. As someone who grew up while a lot of what he relates was happening, I found the story interesting until that point-- and then I read with wide eyes as he named some of the grownups of my youth. I did not know they were threads in the fabric of the game; they were my best friend's father and her league president, who fought successfully for girls to have parity with boys in the youth leagues.

Haner's writing is compelling. He's an excellent storyteller, and you'll be able to see these kids on the field as well as the players from decades ago. Soccer has well over 100 years of history in our country, almost all of it buried, much of it now in a warehouse near where I live. I'm doing my part to help it gain ground again. If you care about the beautiful game or have a child who plays, read this to learn more about why soccer matters.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer by Chuck Culpepper

Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English SoccerBloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer by Chuck Culpepper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightful memoir by a jaded American sportswriter who has had enough of NFL coaches, Derby jockeys, and Kentucky basketball players for a lifetime, and decides to move to England to find the spark that led him into sports writing in the first place. Once there, he discovers that to have an authentic English sporting experience, he needs to choose a soccer team to support, and this is that story.

He's navigating the world of sports from a completely different angle, without a press pass, behind-the-scenes buffet, or access to the team, coaches, field or locker rooms. For the first time as an adult, he is having a real fan experience, and he becomes alternately enchanted and disillusioned with the way most of us experience sports.

The only reason I didn't give all five stars is that I suspect his editor gave him a page count, and he had to stretch his material about 50 pages longer than it would gracefully go. There's a bit of repetitiveness in the self-deprecation, and some scenes go on longer than one might wish.

Even so, if you appreciate soccer from any angle and in any country, this is a really lovely read that will remind you why you support your team and why anyone bothers with sports. I'd love to read more of his work.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano; English translation available

Soccer in Sun and ShadowSoccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This beautifully-written series of historical vignettes and observations captures the tone of soccer like nothing else I've ever read.

Galeano traces the history of the beautiful game from ancient China through the latest iteration of the World Cup. (If you read this book a few years ago, get the current edition for a fine update on the state of soccer in the world today.) Galeano sets the game in the context of world events, reminds us of the legacy of long-forgotten players, and shows us that the modern game indeed stands on the shoulders of giants.

I keep using this adjective, but the writing is beautiful. If you appreciate the game, please read this book to gain a deeper understanding of the history and the way it has played out on the world stage.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister

Farewell, Dorothy ParkerFarewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read this on a recommendation from someone who knows how fond I am of Dorothy Parker. This fact made the book so much worse. To be fair, the author all but apologizes for her sad little trick in an afterword, but it would have been better placed as a caveat at the front.

This is a chick-lit novel with a twist: Dorothy Parker's spirit is trapped in the Algonquin Room's guest book, and leaving the book open to her signature allows her to materialize and take over the body of mousy film critic Violet Epps, helping her to develop a backbone, get a better boyfriend, and win custody of her orphaned niece.

Yes, it's just as bad as it sounds. Dorothy Parker comes off as a wacky auntie rather than the formidable literary force that she was, and the plot veers from ridiculous to unfathomable. The plot is terrible, the writing is terrible, and even the grammar is terrible.

Please don't read this book. If you want some Dorothy Parker, look for her in the byline and leave this to go away quietly.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez, by Robert Andrew Powell

This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad JuárezThis Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez by Robert Andrew Powell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A successful author has a bit of a turn of fortune and decides to settle in Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican border with El Paso, Texas, to follow a newly elevated first-division Mexican soccer team for the season. The cost of living is cheap, the food is outstanding, and the people are terrific-- if they haven't been killed. Juárez during the time of Powell's residence has the highest per-capita murder rate of any city in the world, and it's due to the rampant drug cartels battling it out for the border territory. Juárez is a city full of factories with American contracts, thanks to NAFTA; yet a lot of people seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Mexican president Calderón's policies give only lip service to fighting the war on drugs, and not very far behind the scenes support the infrastructure of the growing border drug trafficking scene in Juárez.

But the soccer team, Juárez's beloved Indios, is in a bubble, in a not-so-bad stadium with a dedicated staff and a travel schedule that gets them away from the city regularly to play the rest of the top teams in Mexico. Powell went to write the story of an unlikely success, only to be on hand when things went downhill. The narrative becomes a metaphor for Juárez itself; so much good along with so much bad, both forces fighting it out for dominance.

The fans are passionate, but some of them are running drugs and at least one of them is doing hit jobs for hire on the side. Powell discovers that there is no black and white anywhere: no one and nothing is all good or all evil. He lives in an almost untenable situation where he sees dead bodies regularly from the hundreds of murders in the city each month.

If you're American and don't know a lot about our neighbors to the south, this book is a good start. You will leave with an appreciation for the Mexican culture's sense of fun and of family, and of the way they are able to live good lives in what seems like a hopeless situation. As a journalist, he includes plenty of factual information to support his observations, so you will learn a lot about the Calderón years, the drug cartels, the economic situation, and Mexican Primera leagues soccer. But you'll learn most about the people that make Juárez worth living in, and maybe worth dying for.


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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Debt

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plainly put, this book is outstanding. I read it on recommendation from a friend after we had a conversation about debt, and it's permanently changed my framework for looking at history: now I see power and economic imbalances instead of a linear series of events.

Graeber takes us from pre-history through the 2008 economic meltdown in 400 pages that are absolutely packed with information about world civilizations. Nearly everything one can think of is directly impacted by the concept of debt: war, peace, slavery, sex, family life, education, language, growth and decay of every kind; all are shaped by the indebtedness of countries, kings, businesses, and people to one another.

The endnotes are as enlightening as the text: when you read, be sure to follow along in the back when you come to a note, or you'll miss some of the best side-excursions you'll ever read.

One need not be an economist to read or appreciate this excellent book. Anyone who enjoys history and has a basic working knowledge of world civilizations will be astonished at the amount of information you will encounter here. It's like finding a common thread through everything that has always been there and was invisible until someone pointed it out. Graeber has done so with this extraordinary work.

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