May Books

Floating City, Sudhir Venkatesh

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This wasn’t quite what I expected It to be.  I thought it was going to be about the underground economies of NYC, such as prostitution and drug trades.  What it actually is is a memoir of the author’s experience as a sociologist studying these circles.  Once I got my arms around that I ended up enjoying this book, for the most part.  I generally am not a huge memoir fan, and I was hoping for more factual knowledge about underground economies and less about how the author felt while researching underground economies.  Still, it’s pretty interesting.

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseni

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Hosseni is a brand name at this point with the massive success of his first two books—The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which are two favorites of mine.  And if you ask me, his success is well deserved.  If you liked his first two books you’ll love this one, published last year.  The format is really interesting.  It’s basically a series of short stories, but all the people in the stories are related to each other, and the stories are all running parallel to each other.  Some of the stories focus on secondary characters, but as they’re so well done I found them to be completely enjoyable in their own right.  The major themes of this novel are Afghanistan before and after the Taliban, class division, and relationships between people—parents and children and sibling to sibling specifically.  Another theme is characters learning that the way they view themselves does not agree with the way they are viewed by others.  Highly recommended and will likely earn a high spot in the best of 2014 reads for me.

The Plan of Chicago, Carl Smith

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Not much to say here, other than it’s a non-fiction book about the making and implementing of the Plan of Chicago.  Since I live here, I thought I should read it.  It’s pretty cool to see how things in the plan played out in real life.  Now that summer is finally on its way in, I am reminded what a beautiful city parts of Chicago are.

The Fault In Our Stars, John Green

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Yep, I finally got around to reading this YA novel.  I liked the main character, Hazel, and her boyfriend Gus as well—they were witty, thoughtful, honest characters.  Hated the subplot around Hazel’s favorite book and its author….bored me to tears.   All things considered I found it entertaining yet mindless…a good book for a rainy day curled up on the couch.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

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Our main character, who is a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company, heads to the Amazon to find out what happened to her research partner.  That’s all I want to say about it.  My coworker handed this book to me and I started reading it without even reading the jacket blurb.  Ultimately I found that a fun way to go about reading this book, it makes reading about the main character’s adventure an adventure in itself.  The book starts off slow but really picks up steam about halfway through.  There are a few interesting ethical dilemmas that Ms. Patchett inserts into the story as well, and the ending would be great fodder for a book discussion.  This was the first Ann Patchett novel I’ve read and I plan on reading Bel Canto now also.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

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A Chicago reporter heads back to her home town in Wind Gap, MO, to investigate the murders of two young girls, which opens many old wounds for our main character Camille.  This is a seriously dark book…more so than Gone Girl IMO.  I still don’t know how I feel about it, if I liked it or not.  The main character is an absolute mess, and Wind Gap is incredibly creepy.  She does a great job setting the tone of the characters and town.  It’s hard to read about such a trainwreck of a main character.  Will I read Dark Places?  Probably. But not too soon…need some time off from such dark material!

To Rise Again at A Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris

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Of all the books I read, I would guess 95% come from the library.  4% from used book stores or sales, and 1% purchased new.  I was thinking about that, and decided I need to put my money where my mouth is more often.  But I wanted to do so in ways that didn’t just send profits to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or the major players.  So I signed up for Greenlight Bookstore’s First Editions Club.  I did the six month trial, and this book was the first one sent to me.  Paul O’Rourke is a lonely dentist in Manhattan who longs for a family—the only family he has is feeling part of Red Sox Nation.  One day his office assistant (and ex girlfriend) alerts him to the dental practice’s new webpage, that he didn’t create.  Someone has stolen his online identity.  But it’s far more than it seems.  Themes of this novel are alienation in modern society, religion, and doubt vs. faith.  Would I have ever picked up this book myself? Maybe.  I’m glad Greenlight sent it to me though.  The writing is funny and truthful and touching all at once, however, there are parts which focus on religious history which go on for a bit much.  The next two books in the club look exciting too, and my goal is to read each book in the month it was sent to me.

L.A. Noir, John Buntin

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This book is wild!  It covers the Los Angeles PD from roughly the 20s to the late 60s.  It also covers the Syndicate in Los Angeles, run by Mickey Cohen, and how the mobsters interacted with the police.  It gets into the race riots of the 60s as well.  I was surprised how captivated I became by it.  I learned quite a bit about police operations and govt/police corruption.   Who knew non-fiction could be so entertaining!

Fist Stick Knife Gun, Geoffrey Canada

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Part memoir, part call for action, Mr. Canada tells the story of growing up in the Bronx and how violence is conditioned into children born into poverty at a young age.  I have a much deeper understanding of the effects of normalized violence thanks to this book.  At under 200 pages, I got through it in about two days, because it’s so easy to read and absorb.

Total books read in 2014: 31

 

 

 

April Books

Wow, I can’t believe we’re already through April.   It feels like it went really fast, but I managed to get through a lot of reading this month!  Let’s get started:

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

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Here we have a solid contender for best of 2014, at minimum top five.  Set on Death Row, The Enchanted is the story of an inmate nearing his execution date, only unlike the other inmates, he claims he does  want to die.  A woman is sent to investigate his case, and as she does she learns of some dark similarities between herself and the inmate.  The story is narrated by a mute inmate, also on death row.  The material is dark but truly beautifully written.  Probably the most uplifting story about the bleakest world I can imagine.  Highly recommended.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Sarah Bruni

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Sheila is almost 18, living in boring Iowa and dreaming of the day she graduates and heads to Paris.  Until she meets the mysterious Peter Parker….wait, isn’t that the guy from Spider-Man?  Peter captures Sheila at gunpoint and takes her to Chicago where their adventure unfolds.  While the ending felt kind of rushed, overall this is a quick, enjoyable, emotional read.

Oxygen, Carol Cassella

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Marie is an anesthesiologist who faces pressure in her personal and professional life when a routine surgery hits crisis mode.  I found the professional side of this story to be compelling, but too much of this story revolved around Marie’s relationship with her family, which bored me.  This is decent beach or plane reading, but I wouldn’t rush to put it on your to-read list.

Tenth of December, George Saunders

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Finally got around to reading this huge hit from 2013!  It’s a collection of short stories, my favorite being The Semplica Girl Diaries.  Saunders’ ability to create such depth in so few pages per story is really amazing.  This collection made many top ten lists of 2013 and with good reason.  An excellent read.

The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

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Is it just me or is the latest thing to have your main character be your antagonist too?  Like Walter White in Breaking Bad?  Nora, our narrator, is one miserable, unlikeable character.  She’s middle aged and feeling angry and invisible.  At times her anger feels realistic, but at other times it seems over the top.  But despite this, I found myself completely wrapped up in this story….until the ending, which left me saying “Oh, come on!”.  I felt it was pretty unrealistic…don’t want to give it away though!  Nora is a teacher who befriends the  professional artist mother of one of her students, which inspires her to become more passionate and to focus more  on her artwork.  But with a first sentence like “How angry am I?  You don’t want to know.” you know this isn’t gonna end well.  I don’t know if I’d recommend this one either.  If you like the antagonist as narrator format, then go for it.  But if you don’t have time for angst, skip this.

Strike for America, Micah Uetricht

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Finally, a non-fiction book this month!  I signed up for a six book non-fiction set through Jacobin and this is one of the first three they sent me…the other two will be reviewed later this spring (or, as my knitting group discussed, it’s not really spring in Chicago but postwinter) Here’s the story of the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012.  Informative and fast for educators, Chicagoans, and those interested in union history.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

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I read this book while on my NY vacation–J’s sister has lots of books around her place and so when I visit I know there will be something interesting for me to pick up.  I found this book to start off slow but it became more and more interesting–it’s about the tragedy that unfolds around a family in India when the ex-wife and daughter of the family’s son come to visit.  It’s a really interesting read about what life is like in India, about feeling inferior to a person with white skin, about the caste system, child abuse, worker’s struggles.  It’s one of those books you could read a second time and realize how much you missed the first.  Roy has a new nonfiction book out which is going into the queue now!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , Mark Haddon

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Christopher is a 15 year old autistic boy who decides to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog.  But he ends up learning a whole lot more than he bargained for.  The narrator is also a math genius, and the story is peppered with lots of interesting math and logic puzzles.  It’s an extremely fast read, written for young adults, also one of those good summer mindless reading days.

Night, Elie Wiesel

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I was thinking I should add some classics into my reading as I generally stick to more contemporary things.  At only 100 pages, Night definitely gets a full, detailed account of Wiesel’s life in the concentration camps across.  I had never read this in school like many people do, but I learned quite a bit.

Total books read in 2014: 22

March Books

Hello readers!  My self-imposed  hiatus is over.  It has been a very busy month thanks to a 3/31 deadline, but we’re through that now and hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly!

Perhaps it’s because of the madness at work, but I got a TON of reading done on the train and before bed this month.  I made it through six books.

A Widow for One Year, John Irving

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I suppose it would be that one won’t love all the books one reads in a year.   This was my first “bust” of 2014.  The book is in three portions, following three segments of our protagonist Ruth’s life.  First, when she is four and her mother begins an affair with her husband’s assistant who is 16 years old, Second, when she is mid 30s and contemplating marriage, and Third, when she has been widowed about five years after the wedding.  The first segment is the strongest of the three.  While I found the affair totally gross (sixteen year old boys? Oh yuck let alone not even legal) it’s the best written.  But I found adult Ruth to be an incomplete person–there were times where I felt her actions or reactions were completely implausible, and I got really sick and tired of the running commentary on her physical appearance.  I hate to say it, but the whole thing seemed like a man trying to write a woman and just not getting it.  I have another Irving book on my Kindle, The Cider House Rules, which I have not read yet but only got because it was on super sale and I loved the movie.  I really hope I have a better reaction to that one!   I can’t say I would recommend this book to my blog readers.

On Such A Full Sea, Chang-Rae Lee

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The world building in this dystopian fiction is fantastic.  Our main character is Fan, a teenage girl who lives in B-More (formerly Baltimore).  In this America, the rust belt cities are occupied by “New China” residents who  moved to North America after China became too environmentally unsafe to live in.  The other segments of this country are the Charter communities, which are the upper class, and the Counties, which resemble a backwoods, every man for himself environment.  Fan leaves B-More to search for her boyfriend who has gone missing.  It’s such a great, subtle commentary on late stage capitalism–you have to really process what the characters think, say, and do to really get the full picture of this strange new world.  It’s a terrific story, I can’t think of anything else like it, and it comes highly recommended by me.

I Am Troy Davis, Jen Marlowe, Martina Davis-Correia, Troy Davis

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This is a hard one to review.  It’s more than the story of the Troy Davis trial, it’s his (and his family’s) biography.  As I got closer to the ending, and I knew what was coming, it just made me feel sick.  I feel strongly that the US Corrections system does not work, and have felt so for some time, but this book makes the failings of the prison and justice system so personal that it helped shape my take on the prison system even more.  I am deeply touched having read this book, and I urge people to at least read about the Troy Davis case or the UN’s position on the death penalty (or the UN’s Alternatives to Incarceration) if you cannot make it through this difficult book.

Boy, Snow, Bird. Helen Oyeyemi

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The title of this book is the names of the three women featured in this novel.  Boy Novak runs away from her abusive father to live in Connecticut, where she marries a man with a beautiful stepdaughter named Snow.  Boy becomes pregnant and when she gives birth, it’s clear from her daughter Bird’s appearance that her husband is actually a black man and passing for white.  Using elements of mysticism and fairy tale, Oyeyemi explores race relations in 1950s New England with touching results.

The Silent Wife, A.S.A. Harrison

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Did you like Gone Girl?  Well put this right on your list then–Harrison’s first and only novel (she passed away last year, sadly) examines the long term partnership of Jodi and Todd.  It’s told in a similar style (sometimes our main character is Jodi, sometimes it’s Todd) and as you keep turning the pages the crazy grows and grows.  I’m very sad this is Harrison’s only book, I really dug it and I think I got through it in only a few days as I couldn’t put it down.  So if you like relationship psychothrillers, this is a can’t miss.  Also,  if you read this book, I totally envisioned Jodi as Robin Wright (aka Clare Underwood on House of Cards).

Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

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The too-strange-to-be-true-but-really-is-true story of Huguette Clark–the youngest daughter of W.A. Clark who made his millions mining copper in Montana.  I feel like I don’t want to say too much to give anything away–first, the book tells of her father’s ascent in business and politics, then on to her childhood, then on to her very sheltered adulthood.  Huguette passed away a few years ago, and still had assets in the nine figures to her name, so the conclusion of the book discusses the dissolution of her estate.  It’s a fun, fascinating read about the .001%, and about American History, and human nature.  A real gem of a story.

Total books read in 2014: 13

 

February Books

I read four books in February–two fiction and two non-fiction.  Let’s begin:

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Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney

Dollarocracy tells the details behind campaign financing–from the Supreme Court rulings on campaign spending, to the advertising agencies creating campaign ads, to the television stations receiving enormous revenues, and how this affects the tenure of elected officials.  For me, some of it felt dry (for example, the legal stuff started to lose me a bit) but I certainly got a lot from this book.  I’d recommend it, with the caveat that you may find yourself skipping chapters that lose your interest.  It’s worth it–you’ll still get something new out of it.

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Bullet Park, John Cheever

I picked this up at a used book sale nearly two years ago and finally had time to pick it up.  Are you a fan of Mad Men?  This book, set in suburban 1960s New York, could run parallel to Don and Betty Draper.  It’s dry, dark humor which gets more creepy as it goes on.  It’s the story of two men, with the last names of Hammer and Nailles, with a climactic interaction at the end.  The story of how in that time and place, a man’s duty and a man’s desires were at great odds.   It’s a quick read, and I can’t remember anything else quite like it.

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Timebound (The Chronos Files), Rysa Walker

This book was a blast.  A seventeen year old girl learns the gift of time travel was passed down to her from her grandmother and she has to travel time to stop her grandfather and aunt from using a cult to take over the world.  PLEASE let there be a sequel to this!  This was the YA fiction I needed, to take the sting of Allegiant out of my mind.

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To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam

Oh my goodness.  I read this in 24 hours.  Cris Beam tells the story of a great number of foster care youth, foster parents, adoptive parents, and birth parents.  It’s completely compelling and unpredictable.  Honestly, of all the books I’ve posted year to date, (I know, only two months! but still) this is the must-read one.  I work for an agency that funds education for youth ages 17-21 for wards of the state so when she gets to the part about youth aging out, I could really see how what she wrote about is reflected in the youth serviced by my agency.  The subjects of this book are treated with compassion by the author, and it’s a book I won’t forget.

Total books read in 2014: 7

January Books

Another goal of mine is to log all the books I’ve read this year.  So often I’ll read a book and totally forget that I read it.  I’m going to preface this by saying that while I won’t put in blatant spoilers,  I may make references to the plots, so please read at your own discretion!

1. After the Music Stopped, Alan Blinder

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I do a lot of economic/political reading when I look for non-fiction, and when I first started this book I nearly put it down as usual fluff but I kept reading and ultimately got a lot out of it.  I don’t agree with a number of Mr. Blinder’s conclusions (he’s awfully soft on the Fed and the Clinton administration, but then you read his bio and see why) but the chronology of this book is really super and I did learn a lot.  He assumes a basic knowledge of macroeconomics as well as derivatives which might make this book too much for someone without a finance background (if that sounds like you, I highly recommend Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia) but I really like how he includes 2006-2012 in this book–so many stop after 2009 or so.  My biggest takeaway was a clearer understanding of how the various players in the game–the Fed, the Treasury, Congress, big bankers, etc– worked with each other during the fiscal crisis.

2. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

I couldn’t put this book down, but I do have mixed feelings on it.  It’s about six teens who meet at an arts summer camp in the 70s.  It follows the lives of four of the youth up through their 50s (aka through present time) with the occasional mention/appearance of the other two.  Something happens between two of the teens which has implications on them for decades to come.  To be honest I feel like it didn’t need to happen.  In another plot, one the other teens ends up being wildly successful (creates a show that sounds an awful lot like The Simpsons) and the concept of evaluating your choices in life, as you get older, and wondering if you did the right thing or if you were ever truly meant to be anything but ordinary  could have been expanded rather than the confrontation which splits the group.  The confrontation is never comfortably resolved, though, I suppose that’s rather realistic in many cases, but it makes me have less respect for our protagonist.  Did anyone else read this book?  Would like to hear your thoughts on it!

3. Allegiant, Veronica Roth

this has been a hot series in the YA fiction realm so I’m hoping I’m not the only one who has read this here.  I HATED the ending.   HATED IT.  I felt massively uncomfortable experiencing the last few chapters along with Four.  But the more I thought about the series as a whole the more I find fault with it.  To note:

1. What’s up with all the factionless people?  Why is this OK in the eyes of the factioned?  Wouldn’t you think the Abnegation would do something about this?  Based on how the Abnegation culture is described, they wouldn’t permit a world with this vast factionless population.  The factioned people all seemed pretty naive/ignorant regarding the factionless.

2.  Not buying how things end with Evelyn and Four.  Sorry not sorry.

3.  Why did Ms. Roth name the romantic lead Tobias?  How am I supposed to buy into a romantic scene when this is all I can picture:

The name Tobias is forever tainted.

Anyways, that’s what I’ve read in January.  I’ve started another non fiction book called Dollarocracy, which I’m not too far into, but now that I’ve plowed through Louie on Netflix maybe I’ll be reading more.

Total books read for 2014: 3

Books: Humans of New York

Books: Humans of New York

To follow up from the disastrous last book I reviewed comes a real gem.  If you haven’t been following this website, either from the link I’ve provided here or from the facebook page, I urge you to!  Brandon Stanton does such a lovely job of capturing the energy and spirit behind NYC.  

The book is about the size of a textbook and the picture quality is lovely.  It’s really a coffee table type book, but I spent about an hour pouring over it last night.  Reading it transports me out of Chicago and into NYC and I just love it.  It’s my dream to move there in a few years, and his photography helps me get my east coast fix when I need it!  But even if you aren’t a NYer or have never visited, it’s still a great collection of pictures of interesting, colorful people accompanied by snippets of their story as told to Brandon.

Books: Wolf of Wall Street

Good grief.  I only made it halfway through Chapter 3 on this one.  It’s supposed to be a somewhat fictionalized memoir of Jordan Belfort’s time on Wall Street at a chop shop.  I love reading anything financial, particularly about trading and the financial climate during the Clinton administration and then post-Gramm-Leach-Bliley.

The prologue starts out promising–it’s the author on his first day at work and he’s like a fish out of water around all the cokeheads.  However Ch. 1 jumps right ahead to 6 years after that, after he’s made his money and “converted to the dark side” if you will.  By Ch. 3 he’s already gone into excruciating detail about Venice, some stripper he met, and his wife whatever-tf her name is (forgot already) and how irresistible she is.  He describes her having “luscious, loamy loins” multiple times.  WTF does loamy mean, I wonder?  Well, per the Oxford English, loam means:

noun

  • a fertile soil of clay and sand containing humus.
  • Geology a soil with roughly equal proportions of sand, silt, and clay.
  •  a paste of clay and water with sand, chopped straw, etc., used in making bricks and plastering walls

Allrighty then. (note: Apparently he stole this phrase from Tom Wolfe.  Well, to hell with Tom Wolfe too, then, for such a stupid phrase).

Oh, he also mentions how he has all these nicknames (in 1993) about what a badass he is, in that list he includes Keyser Soze.  Hey dumbass, Usual Suspects is from 1995.  Who the hell published this book?  Either he’s self published which explains the errors as noted above or his publisher finds him to be as much of a douche as I do.

Anyways, if you want to read more about Wall Street prior to 2008, read Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia.  If you want to hear about highly privileged, low-functioning assholes, watch the Kardashians.  They’ve got to be more entertaining than this schlock.