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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, 2006, * * * *

Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its ownway of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.  Jacob was there because his luck had run out, orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive ;ship of fools. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act and, in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.  Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave, 2009, * * *

Some 50 years ago, the region near Nigeria’s Atlantic coast provided the setting for Chinua Achebe’s haunting novel of a world torn asunder by the vicissitudes of Anglo-imperial expansion. To capture the tragedy of colonialism in that account, “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe looked to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” for inspiration: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. Chris Cleave, a columnist for The Guardian, puts a modern-day spin on Achebe’s concerns with his immensely readable and moving novel. While the pretext of “Little Bee” initially seems contrived — two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter — its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on postcolonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice. Sarah O’Rourke might appear to be an insipid character, with her career at a British magazine, her Batman-costumed young son, her uninspiring lover and her gentrified Surrey lifestyle. When juxtaposed with the Nigerian refugee called Little Bee — whom we first meet behind the razor wire of a British immigration center — Sarah is unsympathetic, even tiresome. But that impression changes partway through the novel when a flashback to Africa reveals her fortitude.  London, with its dizzying abundance and multiculturalism, looks like a parallel universe when compared with the impoverished Nigerian village where Little Bee grew up. Yet it’s this same village that instilled in Little Bee the skills and values needed to help her navigate toward her own scarred survival. Like Little Bee, Sarah is a survivor. But the lessons of the past are not enough to steer either woman to safety. Instead, in a world full of turpitude and injustice, it is their bold, impulsive choices that challenge the inevitability of despair, transforming a political novel into an affecting story of human triumph.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, 2003, * * * * *

David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer and an award-winning novelist, chronicles daily life at the U.S. Military Academy during the most tumultuous period in its history. In 1998, West Point made David Lipsky an unprecedented offer: stay at the Academy as long as you like, go wherever you wish, talk to whomever you want, to discover why some of America's most promising young people sacrifice so much to become cadets. Lipsky followed one cadet class into mess halls, barracks, classrooms, bars, and training exercises, from arrival through graduation. By telling their stories, he also examines the Academy as a reflection of our society: Are its principles of equality, patriotism, and honor quaint anachronisms or is it still, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, the most "absolutely American" institution?  During arguably the most eventful four years in West Point's history, Lipsky witnesses the arrival of TVs and phones in dorm rooms, the end of hazing, and innumerable other shifts in policy and practice known collectively as The Changes. He uncovers previously unreported scandals and poignantly evokes the aftermath of September 11, when cadets must prepare to become officers in wartime. Absolutely American spotlights a remarkable ensemble of characters: a former Eagle Scout who struggles with every facet of the program, from classwork to marching; a foul-mouthed party animal who hates the military and came to West Point to play football; a farm-raised kid who seems to be the perfect soldier, despite his affection for the early work of Georgia O’Keeffe.  Many of them thrive under the rigorous regimen; others battle endlessly just to survive it.  This was a  fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line -- a superb description of modern military culture, and one of the most gripping accounts of university life I have ever read.  As the cadets finally graduate and launch their careers, you may feel like a proud parent or friend standing in the crowd and cheering their accomplishments

Monday, May 24, 2010

Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, 2009, * * * *

A riveting exploration of the most difficult and important part of what doctors do, by Yale School of Medicine physician Dr. Lisa Sanders, author of the monthly New York Times Magazine column "Diagnosis," and the inspiration for the hit Fox TV series House, M.D.  for which she currently serves as a consultant  The experience of being ill can be like waking up in a foreign country. Life, as you formerly knew it, is on hold while you travel through another world as unknown as it is unexpected. Patients want a road map that will help them manage their new surroundings. "When I see patients in the hospital or in my office who are suddenly, surprisingly ill, what they really want to know is, ‘What is wrong with me?’" The ability to give this unfamiliar place a name, restores a measure of control, independent of whether or not that diagnosis comes attached to a cure. In Every Patient Tells a Story,  Never in human history have doctors had the knowledge, the tools, and the skills that they have today to diagnose illness and disease. Yet mistakes are still made, diagnoses missed, and symptoms or tests are misunderstood.  Through dramatic stories of patients with baffling symptoms, Sanders portrays the absolute necessity and surprising difficulties of understanding the patient’s story, the challenges of  a good history & physical;  the pitfalls of doctor-to-doctor communication, the vagaries of tests, and the near calamity of diagnostic errors. Dr. Sanders chronicles the real-life drama of doctors solving these difficult medical mysteries while illustratating the art and the science of diagnosis.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, 2010, * * * *

We live in a world of great and increasing complexity, where even the most expert professionals struggle to master the tasks they face. Longer training, ever more advanced technologies--neither seems to prevent grievous errors. But in a hopeful turn, acclaimed surgeon and writer Atul Gawande finds a remedy in the humblest and simplest of techniques: the checklist. First introduced decades ago by the U.S. Air Force, checklists have enabled pilots to fly aircraft of mind-boggling sophistication. Now innovative checklists are being adopted in hospitals around the world, helping doctors and nurses respond to everything from flu epidemics to avalanches. Even in the immensely complex world of surgery, a simple ninety-second variant has cut the rate of fatalities by more than a third. In riveting stories, Gawande takes us from Austria, where an emergency checklist saved a drowning victim who had spent half an hour underwater, to Michigan, where a cleanliness checklist in intensive care units virtually eliminated a type of deadly hospital infection.  Harvard Medical School prof and New Yorker scribe Gawande (Complications) notes that the high-pressure complexities of modern professional occupations overwhelm even their best-trained practitioners; he argues that a disciplined adherence to essential procedures — by ticking them off a list — can prevent potentially fatal mistakes and corner cutting. He examines checklists in aviation, construction, and investing, but focuses on medicine, where checklists mandating simple measures have dramatically reduced hospital-caused infections and other complications.  He's at his best delivering his usual rich, insightful reportage on medical practice, where checklists have the subversive effect of puncturing the cult of physician infallibility and fostering communication and teamwork.  Gawande gives a vivid, punchy exposition of an intriguing idea: that by-the-book routine trumps individual prowess. Gawande is a gorgeous writer and storyteller, and the aims of this book are ambitious. Gawande thinks that the modern world requires us to revisit what we mean by expertise: that experts need help, and that progress depends on experts having the humility to concede that they need help.

Friday, May 14, 2010

White Tiger by Aravind Adiger, 2008, * * * *

In his debut novel, Aravind Adiga takes on some hefty issues: the unhappy division of social classes into haves and have-nots, the cultural imperialism of the First World, the powder-kegged anger that seethes among the world's dispossessed, and entrapment.  The plot centers on Balram Halwai, a laborer born and raised in a small village utterly controlled by crooked and feudally powerful landlords. The village is located in 'the Darkness,' a particularly backward region of India. Balram is eventually taken to Delhi as a driver for one of the landlord's westernized sons, Ashok. It's in Delhi that Balram comes to the realization that there's a new caste system at work in both India and the world, and it has only two groups: those who are eaten, and those who eat.  Balram decides he wants to be an eater, someone with a big belly, and the novel tracks the way in which his ambition plays out. A key metaphor in the novel is the "rooster coop". Balram recognizes that those who are eaten are trapped inside a small and closed cage--the rooster coop--that limits their opportunities. Even worse, they begin to internalize the limitations and indignities of the coop, so that after awhile they're unable to imagine they deserve any other world than the cramped one in which they exist. Balram's dream is to break free of his coop, to shed his feathers and become what for him is a symbol of individualism, power, and freedom: a white tiger. But as he discovers, white tigers have their own cages, too. Of course, it's not simply the Balram's of the world caught in the rooster coop. Adiga's point seems to be that even the world's most privileged suffer from a cultural and class myopia that limits perspective and distorts self-understanding. The White Tiger is a good tonic with which to clear one's vision and spread one's wings.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis, 2010, * * * *

When the crash of the U. S. stock market became public knowledge in the fall of 2008, it was already old news. The real crash, the silent crash, had taken place over the previous year, in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn't shine, and the SEC doesn't dare, or bother, to tread.  That area belongs to the bond and real estate derivative markets where geeks invent impenetrable securities to profit from the misery of lower- and middle-class Americans who can't pay their debts. The smart people who understood what was or might be happening were paralyzed by hope and fear; in any case, they weren't talking. The crucial question is this: Who understood the risk inherent in the assumption of ever-rising real estate prices, a risk compounded daily by the creation of those arcane, artificial securities loosely based on piles of doubtful mortgages? Michael Lewis turns the inquiry on its head to create a fresh, character-driven narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor, a fitting sequel to his #1 best-selling book Liar's Poker. Who got it right? He asks. Who saw the real estate market for the black hole it would become, and eventually made billions of dollars from that perception? What qualities of character made those few persist when their peers and colleagues dismissed them as Chicken Littles? In this trenchant, raucous, irresistible narrative, Lewis writes of the goats and of the few who saw what the emperor was wearing, and gives them, most memorably, what they deserve.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, 2004, * * *

In this fourth novel from Whitbread winner Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum), private detective Jackson Brodie — ex-cop, ex-husband and weekend dad — takes on three cases involving past crimes that occurred in and around London. The first case introduces two middle-aged sisters who, after the death of their vile, distant father, look again into the disappearance of their beloved sister Olivia, last seen at three years old.  A retired lawyer,  who lives only on the fumes of possible justice,  next enlists Jackson's aid in solving the brutal killing of his grown daughter 10 years earlier. In the third "cold" case, the sibling of an infamous ax-bludgeoner seeks a reunion with her niece, who as a baby was a witness to murder.  Jackson's reluctant persistence heats up these cold cases and by happenstance leads him to reassess his own painful history.  The cases are all quite dark, and Atkinson does a good job of conveying the sense of sorrow and loss that surrounds each.  Jackson pursues them without a lot of hope but with due diligence and as in so many procedurals, discovers threads to each that went unexplored. The chapters hopscotch between the different storylines, and the plot unravels in the manner of a good airplane or beach read but it's pretty easy to pick up the clues Atkinson drops, and thus, figure out the conclusion well before the ending and the conclusion to the book wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.  It was good but not great.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, 2009, * * *

In London, three weeks before Christmas 2007, the lives of several characters intersect and intercut each other. With savage accuracy, the story skewers the banking industry and the subprime mortgage crisis while also touching on the evils of Islamic fundamentalism, the British school system, reality TV, role-playing computer games, and critics who delight in giving bad book reviews. The financial explanations are well researched and accurate,  but they slow down the plot.   The main characters are a hedge fund manager trying to pull off the biggest trade of his career and a Scottish-born student led astray by Islamist theory but the other characters, among them a Tube driver, a soccer player, a  book reviewer and a barrister get short shrifted in the novel. I found this book to be unfailingly depressing where all of the characters are either unpleasant or totally obnoxious and it represents a sad commentary on the author's apparent opinion of the greedy, shallow, and class conscious inhabitants of today's United Kingdom. All of this might have been good anti-bourgeois fun, along the lines of recent novels by Jonathan Dee (The Privileges) and Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic) that also feature criminal financiers, if Faulks hadn’t confused the moral calculus by introducing terrorism into the story   In the end, most of the characters and story lines felt like they were added to fatten the book as if a student was trying to satisfy a teacher’s requirement for a 10-page term paper and ultimately the book ends with a thud.  Perhaps, however, there is something to be said for not giving a formulaic ending  - everything continues "as is" despite upheavals in the world and with the characters.