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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reading Rainbow

So, we've established what book I definitely will not ever, never ever ever never read. 

Let's flip this to the positive, though, and start talking about some books I have read recently.  I mean, I can't let negative book thoughts go lingering on the Internet for too long.  That's just disloyal.

The last month or so has been pretty productive for me, reading-wise.  I chalk it up to (1) more consistent mornings at the gym (the only way I stay on a cardio machine is if I have reading material in front of me); and (2) the abysmal offerings on television these days (abysmal for someone with no fancy channels like HBO or fancy devices like DVR). 

(By the way, what are my options for catching up on shows like Girls, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Veep, etc?  Acceptable responses do not include "get HBO.")

Join me on my reading rainbow, won't you?  Landing at a pot of gold is guaranteed.

1.  Ten Thousand Saints

This was my book club's assignment for our May meeting.  It is about 3 teenagers who are bound together by fate after the death of Teddy, who was Jude's best friend, Johnny's half brother, and Eliza's random hook-up.  Set in late 1987/early 1988, the story settles in the pot-smoking, heavy metal, aging hippy landscapes of Vermont and New York City.

Teddy's death -- caused by a drug overdose -- takes place early on in the book, and defines the rest of it.  Each character spends the remaining pages trying to come to grips with life minus Teddy.  To tell the paths each one takes would be to give too much of the plot away.  But as they try to make sense of themselves and their lives, they also try to understand their relationships with their parents.  Those parents are alternatively absent, chemically dependent, well-intentioned, or entirely aloof.

The story explores a period of time and a culture of counter-culturists that does not seem to have received much attention in popular fiction.  Because of its subject-matter, some portions of the book were achingly sad; reading about these kids, who seem so lost and so largely alone, sometimes made it hard to keep reading.  I am glad I kept going.  The book was engrossing, interesting in almost a historical sense, and ultimately redemptive.

Grade: B+

2.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This is the first time I've ever read a book for a second time.  I'd read this one a couple years ago, and it finally gave me an answer to the "what's your favorite book?" question.  I decided to read it again.

I am so glad I did.  I love this book.  It's still my answer to that question.

The book takes place in the tenements of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn -- Williamsburg, to be more exact.  The heroine of the story is young Francie Nolan, the oldest of Johnny and Katie Nolan's three children.  Johnny is a dreamer, a singing waiter, and his daughter's hero.  He is also an alcoholic and an unreliable breadwinner for his struggling family.  Katie is a young mother and a tired janitress, uneducated but wise in the ways of the world.  Her goal is for her children to graduate from college -- essentially a fantasy.

But from birth, she reads to her children every night.  One chapter from the Bible; one chapter from the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  Francie begins writing her own little stories and going to the library to take out -- and then read -- a book every day.  Perhaps you can see why I'm in love with her.

The book traces Francie's life from young childhood to her, yes, departure for college.  Along the way, we see what it meant to be a poor immigrant trying to hang on to a belief in the touted American dream.  We see the pure earnestness of a little girl, and wishes so simple they are heart-breaking.  We see what it means to be a mother, a sister, and a fighter.  Not in the boxing sense.  In the spirit sense.

They are big messages to convey.  Part of the wonder of the book is that those messages translate through straightforward writing and the observations of a young, hungry, generally-deprived little girl. 

Grade: A+ 

3.  The Fall of The House of Zeus

This is a memoir about Dickie Scruggs, a mass-tort trial lawyer from Mississippi who made millions and millions of dollars by figuring out how to bring huge class actions against the asbestos industry and the tobacco industry.  The book shows how he came to amass those riches, but the focus is on how he came to loose everything else:  his law practice, his reputation, his connections, and his chem-free lifestyle.

Part of the intrigue of the book is its detailing of how Scruggs' road to riches was paved with back-room deals, good old boy connections, and shady political figures.  Interestingly, his downfall was paved with those same elements.  It's a part fascinating, part nauseating glimpse into a world where results are supposed to be evidence of the truth and efforts are supposed to be the pursuit of it, but where everything ultimately boils down to money, self-interest, and self-preservation.  And money.  Also, money.

If you dislike plaintiffs' lawyers and/or politicians, this book will supplement your righteous indignation.  If you don't have any interest in either, this book is a pass for you.  To the extent you do decide to pick it up, be prepared for lots of names and titles.  I can't remember any of them and didn't even try to -- it was such a tangled web that I eventually just found myself glazing over them.

Grade: B-

4.  The Power of One

This is a book I picked up totally randomly because it was in the 2-for-1 bin at the bookstore.  I'm so glad I grabbed it.

It's set in pre-apartheid South Africa and tells the story of Peekay, a young boy sent off to a loathsome boarding school when his mother falls ill.  He is brutally bullied there, and seems destined for a life of sadness and disappointment.  In fact, the opening chapters of the book are so painful to read that, again, I almost had to put this one down.

But then Peekay gets sent to his grandfather's ranch, and must travel there by train.  The train conductor is a man named Hoppy who befriends Peekay and introduces him to the world of boxing.  He takes Peekay to a boxing match during a layover in their trip, and in the process convinces Peekay that he is to become the "next welterweight champion of the world."  It becomes Peekay's battle cry, along with Hoppy's mantra that a boxer has to fight "first with the head, then with the heart."

From that fateful encounter, Peekay's life takes a rapid upswing.  In Forrest Gumpian degrees, he becomes an exceptional student, chess-player and, of course, boxer.  He befriends aging scientists and pianists, prison wardens and inmates, librarians and household maids.  He remains just outstanding enough to be marveled, not so outstanding that he becomes a caricature and the book a joke.

Peekay's precocious voice tells the story of self-transformation and triumph, and it's a wonderful story.

Grade: A

5.  Behind The Beautiful Forevers

This is another memoir, and it earned Katherine Boo a Pulitzer Prize.  She spent years following inhabitants of a sprawling slum in Mumbai, India, and focuses her account around 3 of them.  Those three are all teenagers and all trying to support their poorer than poor and larger than large families by sorting garbage, collecting garbage, stealing garbage, or pretending they don't see the garbage.

The book is like a punch to the gut.  It's set in just the past couple years.  And yet still these families are living in tin huts, sleeping on rat-infested floors, and scavenging for food.  They are dying in the streets to no one's notice, they are getting high off discarded bottles of white-out, and they are getting lost in the corrupt bureaucracy of a city that's trying to pretend it's first-world.  They can see the glistening hotels and hear the 747s fly overhead, but they can't count on the fact they'll be eating dinner.

It's a wake-up call of the first degree, but (or should it be "and"?) it's also paralyzingly depressing.  In fact, the book doesn't even try to end on a positive, hopeful note.  Nor should it, I suppose.  The polarity between the upwardly mobile Indian society and the seemingly trapped millions living in its underbelly appears beyond righting. 

So on the one hand, the book is worth reading.  It's one of those books, really, that you feel duty-bound to read.  And it's seamlessly written -- you never feel as though you're reading a distillation of a journalist's notes.  But on the other hand, it's not for the faint of heart.  And it's most certainly not going to fall under the heading of "Summer Beach Read."

Grade: A-

6.  Defending Jacob

I read this book in about 2 days.  It's written by a lawyer, and it's about a lawyer.  Clearly, I was drawn.

The story is about Andy Barber, a successful DA in the Boston suburb of Newton.  The murder of a middle school boy rocks the community, and Andy is assigned to prosecute the case.  Until, that is, he's removed when his own son, Jacob, becomes the suspect.  And soon thereafter, the defendant on trial.

The book covers a lot of themes: bullying, a parent's protective instincts, a young teenager's confused approach to life, the propensity for violence, the court of public opinion, the pariah status of the accused.  It also spends a lot of time in the courtroom or in the investigation.  There are surprise plot twists, cliff hangers, and a unpredictable ending.

It's the type of book that could be formulaic to a fault and almost cheesy in its presentation.  It somehow manages to fall short of that -- a failure which in this sense is very much a positive.  While I sometimes found myself whispering "Oh come on," it was only occasionally and never with an eye-roll.  The lawyerly sections are spot-on, which is always refreshing.  You can tell the author was either a good lawyer or an excellent law student. 

I think most readers would really enjoy this book.  It's an easy read, but it's an engaging one, and it leaves you with a lot to think about at the end.

Grade: A-/B+

Do you have any good summer reads to share?  My Amazon "wish list" is dozens of books me add to it!


  1. You make "beach reading" so much easier with this list! I will be bookmarking it for sure! Thank you! I am reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers as we speak.

  2. Cant wait to look for Power of One!!