This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, 2009, * * *

In my continuing fascination with the Amazon, I just finished The Lost City of Z. After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, the New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve one of the great exploration mysteries of the twentieth century. What happened to the famous British explorer, Percy Harrison Fawcett?   Fawcett disappeared, under unknown circumstances in 1925,  when he ventured into the Amazon hoping to discover an ancient lost civilization in the uncharted jungles of Brazil, a place known only as “Z”. Grann's book is primarily concerned with Fawcett's last expedition, but he recounts Fawcett's entire career. It is hard to imagine what it took to strike out into the absolute unknown--with little or no communication with civilization--sometimes for years at a time. Fawcett and his companions routinely faced starvation, intense thirst, insect infestation, poisonous snakes, piranhas, and indiginous tribes not welcome to outsiders.  Mr. Grann’s style is chatty but really adds little to a story that needs absolutely NO padding. The basis for this book is a 2005 article he wrote, and that may be a more distilled account.   In addition, maps and photos would have greatly helped. This book reminded me of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – if I ever had illusions about the allure of the Amazon, it is completely gone.   Brad Pitt has optioned the book rights for a major motion picture and the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett has recently been told on CBS's Sunday Morning on CBS.

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Rain Forest by Mark Plotkin,1994, * * * * *

For thousands of years, healers have used plants to cure illness. The Amazon is the world's largest tropical forest, home to a quarter of all botanical species on this planet,  as well as hundreds of Indian tribes whose medicinal plants have never been studied by Western scientists.  In Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, Mark. Plotkin recounts his travels and studies with some of the most powerful Amazonian shamans, who taught him the plant lore their tribes have spent thousands of years gleaning from the rain forest which has a fragile ecosystems that is succumbing to overdevelopment. He combines the Darwinian spirit of the great writer/explorers of the nineteenth century with a very modern concern for the erosion of this environment and the vanishing culture of native peoples. His research has been featured in Life, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Time, and the New York Times as well as PBS's Nova and the Academy Award-winning documentary Amazon.  Western medicine is just beginning to value the curative powers of plants and herbs found in the Amazon rain forest and this story is truly an anthropological adventure that also vividly clarifies what destruction of the rain forests may ultimately cost humanity

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

House of Happy Endings: A Memoir by Leslie Garis, 2007 * * * *

Artfully stitched like a well-made quilt, Leslie Garis's memoir encompass three generations - her grandmother Lilian, who wrote the early Bobbsey Twins, grandfather Howard Garis, who created and virtually became Uncle Wiggily, and her father Roger Garis, a playwright, novelist and magazine writer. Along with her mother and brothers, they all inhabited a vast home in Amherst, Massachusetts,  known as "The Dells", where Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams were frequent visitors. Roger Garis, Leslie’s father, aimed higher than his parents,  but withered in their shadows, descending into mental illness characterized by raging mood swings, drug abuse, and bouts of debilitating and destructive depression. In this spellbinding memoir , Lesie Garis chronicles how the years damaged her father, mother; and  brothers. In lesser hands, the quarrels, litigation and violence might control the narrative, as the family copes with disappointment, financial stress, nervous breakdowns, physical illness and death. However, Garis's capacity for conveying the family's vibrancy and vigor triumphs with unsentimental affection, grace and painful honesty. I was privileged to know Mabel Garis, Leslie’s mother, when I lived in Amherst and this story is a true testament to her character.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, 2009, * * * *

In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new strategy for Iraq which he called “the surge”. He said: “Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not. Well, here are the differences.” A skeptical nation listened and among those listening were the young, optimistic army infantry soldiers of the 2-16, the battalion nicknamed "The Rangers". About to head to a vicious area of Baghdad, they decided the difference would be them. For the 2-16, waning violence still meant wild firefights, nerve-wracking patrols through hostile neighborhoods, trash piles that could hide an IED, and dozens of comrades killed and maimed. Finkel's firsthand view is limited, however, as the soldiers' perspective is one of constant reaction to attacks and crises with little sense of exactly how and why the new American counterinsurgency methods calmed the Iraqi maelstrom or what constitutes a success. This book combines the action of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down with the literary brio of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried,  and is an unforgettable work of reporting. David Finkel has produced a story not just about the Iraq War, but of all wars.  Finkel's firsthand description presents an honest, painful and beautifully rendered account of the American experience in Iraq.  .

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreier, 1925, * * * *

This novel by Theodore Dreiser presents Clyde Griffiths, an ordinary young man who is the discontented offspring of a family of street preachers. Readers are immersed in his social background so they can understand how dreams of improving his economic status and social relevance are involved when  Clyde is accused of a vicious murder.  Dreiser offers the reader complex insinuations about the extent of Clyde's guilt which result in an examination of sexual hypocrisy, financial pressures, and governmental dishonesty. Even to the end, before his execution, Clyde's inability to comprehend his own blame is a true representation of human nature. Dreiser's triumph is his talent to provide a magnificently ominous picture of how evil can sneak up on a situation and render it poisonous. Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boqat and the body of a 20-year-old named Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York. Chester Gilletee was put on trial, convicted, and executed by electric chair in 1908. The murder rial drew international attention and the book was the inspiration for the award-winning film "A Place in the Sun". This is an American Classic.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, 2009, * *

This book's narrative takes place over a twelve-hour period and is set within the hidden chambers, tunnels and temples of the Freemasons. Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century and now exists in various forms all over the world.  The various forms all share moral and metaphysical ideals, which include, in most cases, a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. As the story opens, Harvard symbologist Dr. Robert Langdon is summoned unexpectedly to deliver an evening lecture in the U.S. Capitol Building. Within minutes of his arrival, however, the night takes a bizarre turn and a disturbing object--artfully encoded with five symbols--is discovered in the Capitol Building. Langdon recognizes the object as an ancient invitation to usher its recipient into a long-lost world of esoteric wisdom. While this all sounds fascinating, The book follows  similar patterns in plot as Brown's previous books, which is wont to happen when the the same main charater is utilized. However, I was never convinced that Dan Brown could surpass the success of The DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons, and was disappointed in the writing inThe Lost Symbol.  Yet again, Dr. Robert Langdon is called upon to save the world from some menacing threat that only he can uncover but the mysteries and secrets of the Freemasons  didn't engage me as the other books had.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Shibumi by Trevanian, 1979, * * * * *

Nicholai Hel is the world’s most wanted man. Born in Shanghai during the chaos of World War I, he is the son of an aristocratic Russian mother and a mysterious German father. As the protégé of a Japanese Go master. Nicolai survived the destruction of Hiroshima to emerge as the world’s most artful lover and its most accomplished—and well-paid—assassin. He is a genius, a mystic, and a master of language and culture, with a secret determination to attain a state of effortless perfection known only as "shibumi".  Now living in an isolated mountain fortress with his exquisite mistress, Hel is unwillingly drawn back into the life he’d tried to leave behind. Hel is soon being tracked by his most sinister enemy—a supermonolith of international espionage known only as the Mother Company. The battle lines are drawn: ruthless power and corruption on one side, and on the other . . . "shibumi". Behind the spectacular writing, and a rousing adventure story, there are some unique human questions. At its core, Shibumi is  about finding personal peace in an imperfect world. The writing is so good, you are willing to indulge the author and believe in Nicolai Hel and his world. Nicolai Hel is an unlikely 'everyman' in a strange morality tale.  This book was referred to me by my sister and is one of my all-time favorites.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, 2001. * * * * *

When London was stricken by the bubonic plague in the years 1665-1666, the houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, allowing no access to food, water or human comfort. It was quite extraordinary then that the small village of Eyam, Derbyshire, encouraged by the young Rector William Mompesson, voluntarily quarantined themselves in their own "wide green prison." Geraldine Brooks, former war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, and bestselling author of March and People of the Book visited Eyam in the 1990s and inspired by the story, crafted this riveting novel. The narrator is 18-year-old Anna Frith, who emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. After a flea-infested bolt of cloth arrives from London, the plague is manifested in Eyam,  and through Anna's eyes we see how she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders." This is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history, written with stunning emotional intelligence and introducing "an inspiring heroine" Brooks blends love and learning, loss and renewal into a spellbinding and unforgettable read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Gift of an Ordinary Day - Some Thoughts

I don't usually make comments aside from book recommendations.  However, as the snow keeps falling in New England,  I am reminded of the gifts and wonders of an ordinary day.  As NYC was proactive and canceled  public schools and many events in the wake of the storm, Fairfield County, CT followed.  The result has been a profoundly beautiful  day broken up only by the frequent need to shovel.  It is a small price to pay, however,  for living in New England - and we are not in Washington, D.C. which has been inundated with snow and has basically come to a standstill.  We lived there for a decade and it always amazes me how ill equipped our nation's capital is to deal with snow!  I spent the day listening to Juan Diego Florez sing the great aria "Ah! Mes Amis" from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, watched a documentary called The Audition on Pubilc Television, caught up with friends, cooked a wonderful Moroccan tagine, did the New York Times crossword puzzle, and listened to old Podcasts of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, the NPR News Quiz. It does not get much better than this - except for remembering that it is technically still a work day.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, 1995, * * * * *

Snow Falling on Cedars, set on a scenic island off Washington State, known for its fishing and its strawberries, begins and ends with the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto who is charged with the murder of fellow islander and fisherman Carl Heine. Taking place just after World War II, the novel deals with lingering wartime prejudices when the island's Japanese Americans were "resettled" in California for the duration of the fighting and when even those white islanders who might have once been favorably disposed to their Japanese counterparts struggle to reconcile their post-war relationships with their neighbors after the war. Guterson takes on so much with this novel starting with the trial at the center of the book. He explores a forbidden affair, intense prejudice, war wounds of both the physical and emotional sort, hopes, dreams, struggles, and finally the healing of a community. The narrative flows seamlessly between past and present and from trial testimony to deeply personal memories with vivid prose that makes it possible to see, smell, and even taste the surroundings of San Piedro Island. A phenomenal West Coast bestseller, winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award,  this enthralling novel is at once a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, the story of a doomed love affair, and a stirring meditation on place, prejudice, and justice.

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, 2007, * * * *

A New Yorker staff writer, best-selling author, and professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Jerome Groopman unravels the ultimate medical mystery: how doctors figure out the best treatments — or fail to do so. On average, a physician will interrupt a patient describing her symptoms within twelve seconds. In that short time, many doctors decide on the likely diagnosis and best treatment. Often, decisions made this way are correct, but at crucial moments they can also be wrong — with catastrophic consequences, Jerome Groopman pinpoints the forces and thought processes behind the decisions doctors make and explores why doctors err. This book is the first to describe in detail the warning signs of erroneous medical thinking, offering direct, intelligent questions patients can ask their doctors to help them get back on track. Groopman draws on a wealth of research, extensive interviews with some of the country's best physicians, and his own experiences as a doctor and patient. He has learned many of the lessons in this book the hard way, from his own mistakes and from errors his doctors made in treating his own debilitating medical problems. How Doctors Think reveals a profound new view of twenty-first-century medical practice, giving doctors and patients the vital information they need to make better judgments together

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, 2006, * * * *

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, or “old same., in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’ s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that dates back 1,000 years, that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. See's novel details Lily and Snow Flower’s imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. In the summer of 2006 I spent six weeks in Seattle on business and the venerable, independently owned Elliot Bay Books recommended this book to the entire City of Seattle.   It has since become a favorite book club selection.

Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank, 2008. * * * *

Let's face it: we all want to know about “the Rich”. We know they're different than us, but how? We want to pry, but we're too polite or inhibited to ask, even if we get the chance, which is increasingly rare since they're walling themselves off in gated estates, floating around on mega-yachts or hiding behind the telephones at Christies auctions. Thank goodness the Wall Street Journal has unleashed Robert Frank , its "wealth reporter,"  to explore this subject.. "Richistan" is the colloquial term Mr. Frank uses to describe the booming numbers of wealthy andit reads like the best travel writing, full of colorful and interesting stories and providing insights into exotic locales. Robert Frank has been loitering on the docks of yacht marinas, pestering his way into charity balls, and schmoozing with real estate agents who sell mega-houses, all in order to capture the story of the twenty-first century’s nouveau riche. As Frank reveals, there is not one Richistan but three: Lower, Middle, and Upper, each of which has its own levels and distinctions of wealth —the haves and the have-mores.  As the New York TImes Book Review stated "like an anthropologist in the Amazon basin, Frank goes native but instead of a loincloth, he dons a white tuxedo.” I can't remember the last time I've had so much fun with a work of non-fiction as I did reading Richistan

Monday, February 8, 2010

Final Salute:A Story of Unfinished Lives by J. Sheeler, 2008,* * *

Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning story, Jim Sheeler's shines an unprecedented look at the way our country honors its dead. Final Salute Is a stunning tribute to the soldiers who have died in Iraq and their devastated families. Sheeler spent two years shadowing Maj. Steve Beck, a marine in charge of casualty notification, as he delivered the news of battlefield death to families. The reader is put in Beck's shoes as he walks up to houses, delivers the knock on the door dreaded by every military family, and tries to comfort distraught spouses and parents. . After the knock on the door, the story has only begun. From the beginning, Major Beck decided, if he was going to do this job, he would do it his way, the way he would want it done if he were the one in the casket. He learned each dead Marine's name and nickname; touched the toys they grew up with, read the letters they wrote home and held grieving mothers in long embraces. This is an achingly beautiful, devastatingly honest story of the true toll of war. Jim Sheeler weaves together the stories of the fallen and of the broken homes they have left behind and also tells the story of Major Beck and his unflagging efforts to help heal the wounds of those left grieving. Above all, it is a moving tribute to our troops, putting faces to the mostly anonymous names of our courageous heroes, and to the brave families who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2008 * * * * *

In this international bestseller, a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, joins forces with a 24-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacker, Lisbeth Salander, to investigate the whereabouts of a woman missing for over 40 years from one of the wealthiest families in Sweden. As mesmerizing as it is insightful, The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo is a multi-layered, multi-character tale full of social conscience and compassion, with insight into the nature of moral corruption. At its core, it is a fascinating character study of a young woman who easily masters computer code but for whom human interaction is almost always more trouble than it is worth.  Be warned, however, that the issue most dominating the novel is shocking sexual violence against women.  Larsson's other major elements include corporate malfeasance that threatens complete collapse of stock markets and anarchistic distrust of officialdom - how prescient! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is part of the Milennium Trilogy which includes The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Air Castle That Blew Up. A murder mystery, family saga, love story, and a tale of financial intrigue wrapped into one satisfyingly complex and entertaining novel.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner, 2009, * *

Addie Downs and Valerie Adler will be best friends forever. That's what Addie believes after Valerie moves across the street when they're both nine years old. However,  in the wake of betrayal during their teenage years, Val is swept into the popular crowd, while mousy, sullen Addie becomes her school's scapegoat. Flash-forward fifteen years where Valerie has found a measure of fame and fortune working as the weathergirl at the local TV station and Addie lives alone in the house she grew up in. She is caring for a troubled brother, trying to meet Prince Charming on the Internet, and has just returned from Bad Date #6 when she opens her door to find her long-gone best friend standing there, a terrified look on her face and blood on the sleeve of her coat. Best Friends Forever is a story about betrayal and loyalty, family history and small-town secrets, living through tragedy, finding love where you least expect it, and the ties that keep best friends together. Jennifer Weiner is known for being the doyenne of  “chick- lit" and this book has been referred to as a sad and sweet turn on Thelma and Louise. Although I loved the movie, I did not love this book as I found the characters shallow and the plot predictable.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, 2002, * * * *

All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo. Set during the 1991 Gulf War, but about contemporary Egypt, Alaa Al Aswany's novel follows the lives of several of the building's inhabitants. The diverse characters include the pious son of the building's doorkeeper. the impoverished squatters on its roof, the tattered aristocrat, the gay intellectual, and the ruthless businessman whose stores occupy the ground floor. Each sharply etched character embodies a facet of modern Egypt - an Egypt where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies. It is also the Egypt where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail. Al Aswany explores the abuses of power and the corruption that permeate Egypt, from the highest levels of government and business down to the employment of the police as paid thugs in domestic disputes. The novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in 2002 and has remained one of the best selling novels in the Arabic language since.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt, 1994 * * * * *

Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath, reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of non-fiction.  It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the 'soul of pampered self-absorption'; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These characters act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else. This book is sublime, seductive, brilliantly conceived and masterfully written. It is definitely a modern day classic.