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Book Reviews

Book#4: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I love the tone of this book. It is fun and exciting and sexy and made me want to keep reading. . Diaz’s style is accessible and he never harps on any one character so long that you get tired. 
I love, love, love reading books about the Dominican. The country’s history is so complex and heartbreaking. Julia Alvarez is one of my favorite authors and In the Time of Butterflies she recounts the brave story of the Mirabel sisters. They are often referenced here; their stories mentioned within the cruel context of the Dominican Dictator Trujillo. 
The story is told with the backdrop of a fuku or curse that has fallen on our protagonist’s family and the zafa or counter-curse that he narrator is trying to use to rid the original fuku. Although this was the whole context of the book, I didn’t like the consequence and felt that the characters, the story and the history in this book could have easily carried themselves without what I’m sure is a relevant part of the culture but came off as a bit of a gimmick. 
Rating: 7.1/10

Book #5: The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
I always feel a bit foolish when I am walking around reading a book that has an “Oprah’s Book Club” label on it but the last time I was the library bookstore, I couldn’t find many things I liked and ended up grabbing about five books from Oprah’s selections so you have many book club reviews to look forward to.
Most people who saw me reading this book had seen the movie and had lots of good things to say about it, so if you are not much of a reader you may want to check that out instead.  It’s been a long time since I’ve really just appreciated story telling. I loved how Dubus paints a story in which everyone is a villain and no one is a villain. He somehow captures that fine balance between the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of our choices. He demonstrates how the choices we make that change our life are often made uncertainly, without clarity or a definitiveness. But their consequences define us completely. They can lead to death or a life seemingly wasted as was the case with the characters in House of Sand and Fog.
So, despite what I am about to say, I really liked this book and would recommend it. 
The more I read fiction, the more I am beginning to see patterns in writing. Formulas seem apparent and even with the best of writing, there tends to come a point in the book, usually about three quarters in, when I want to throw it against the wall, find the author and yell at him/her because they have ruined a story I was really, really loving. 
I was afraid I was going to start skimming through the last pages of the book but Dubus finishes so strongly. In the last pages you can feel the tragedy wrapping around you and slowly bringing you down, forcing you to understand the intense sadness and emptiness in some lives. 
Great Read!!
Rating: 8.5/10

katherine graham

Book Three: Personal History by Katharine Graham
Read: 8/18/2009
Rating: 9.6/10

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. A much better use of your reading time would be to stop reading this blog and go read this book!
I will admit that the only reason I even bought this book was because it was so cheap. I went to the public library the day before our trip to find a book in their little used bookstore. My criteria were simple. It had to look like it was new. (I like the idea of writing in a fresh book.) It couldn’t be hard cover. (I wanted to be able to carry it easily.) It had to talk to an area on which I was mostly ignorant. Personal History by Katherine Graham fit the bill and for 50 cents it seemed like a steal even before I read a single word.
One reason I wasn’t sure I would get it because at 625 pages I was afraid it would interrupt my pace and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my goal to keep reading about a book a week. No worries! It was really hard for me to put this book down, even when Costa Rica lay all around me!
I hadn’t even heard of Katharine Graham before picking up this book but was interested in the woman who was described on the back jacket to have piloted the Washington Post through crisis of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
In her autobiography Katharine Graham not only tells her story but uses it as a vehicle to tell the largely untold stories of her parents and Phil Graham. In the beginning of the book we are introduced to the extreme life of privilege that Graham was born in to. But we also see how lonely this life is, where she is often left with her siblings under the care of governesses and grown ups with the non-existence of her mother’s affection.
Her father is an ambitious and extremely successful businessman. After he buys the Washington Post it becomes his great life work. Her mother is an incredibly selfish and often destructive woman. But there is no doubt that her mother is also brilliant. In one passage Graham quotes her mother, “Most people go through life without ever discovering the existence of the whole field of endeavor which we describe as second wind. Whether mentally of physically occupied most people give up at the first appearance of exhaustion. Thus they never learn the glory and the exhilaration of genuine effort….” This is totally me! I can never focus long enough now to get that satisfaction of pushing through and past a difficult part in my academic work. In law school one of my friend’s use to always tell me to try to sit down long enough that those first flirtations of distraction were gone. I never did succeed but I am going to try again. What an awful state to live in when you only see the most pathetic part of your ability exercised!
Later we meet Phil Graham. At the beginning he is a completely charming man. He is likable and the onset of Graham’s relationship and subsequent marriage seem very promising. She takes us through his great rise. He becomes the publisher of the Post at 30, personal advisor and friend to Lyndon B. Johnson and JFK. His brilliance is breathtaking at times. But he is manic depressive in a time where the language to describe his condition doesn’t even exist.
As he mentally deteriorates Graham is his only comfort and care taker because they are too ashamed to tell anyone about his deep bouts of depression. For five years she nurses him while trying to take care of their four children and still maintaining a picture of a perfect family and business. (Keep in mind that the Post is essentially completely under Phil’s control at this time.) 
As our heart breaks for Graham we are as shocked as she is when we discover that Phil has been having an affair (and also tells her about various other ones he has had) and has decided to leave Graham. At this point Graham blames just about everything on his illness and I am not sure if that is correct. But there is no doubt that at the time that Phil is spiraling out of control. At one dinner to honor his friend he rushes to the mic where he starts to incoherently talk and then proceeds to undress himself. This is his first public outing with Robin, the woman for who he has left his wife. Soon after he is institutionalized. After getting out he glob trots and starts a new life with his mistress. Graham writes “I found it haunting that the life he was reconstructing seemed to be a mirror image of everything we had done together.”
Eventually Phil’s life with his new woman falls apart and he suffers another bad bout of depression. He is soon institutionalized and with the charm that many manic-depressives have, he is able to secure a pass to leave the institution to go home for a bit. Graham and Phil enjoy a nice lunch together and then lay down for a nap. Phil excuses himself to go lay down in one of their other rooms. Moments later Graham hears a gun go off. She races into the room to find her husband lying dead as the pool of blood around him grows.
Graham emerges from this tragedy to take over the Post and begins to make a career for herself. The rest of the book details her rise, the incredible sexism she faced and highlights the many challenges she rises to in her career as publisher of the Post and in her many hats at the Washington Post Company. The story is remarkable and inspiring. If you are looking for a book that will greatly increase your knowledge about American history and politics, this is a sure bet.
The whole time I was reading this book, I didn’t want to know if she had passed away. It was written 12 years ago and as I read the last chapter I was so angry with her. She sounds tired and sad in some ways. My greatest fear is growing old. For the longest time I have prayed that I would die young. (I am sorry to the people this offends.) There is something about becoming that old, having seen that much of the world and losing everyone you have loved that is incredibly depressing and scary. Even Graham, who’s life has been so rich and varied and beautiful must humble herself before the cruelty of age. She is tired, illness is starting to take over her body and she realizes that she is in the “the last lap.” Those words broke my heart. Graham passed away in July of 2001. I pray that she is with her beloved Phil, far away from the darkness of his illness, with her parents who are restored to the days of their best health and with her many friends that she lost over the years. Ameen. 

spat out Plath and Pinter, I am all the things you regret

Book Five: Rough Magic, A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexandar
Read: 8/21/2009
Rating: 7.2/10

I picked up the Plath biography because she is a writer I have always appreciated, though I am only familiar with her poetry and not her novel. It seems that she is as famous for her life story as for her work. She showed an incredible drive and commitment to writing from a very young age. She started submitting her work to magazines before her teens and by the time she entered Smith she had already began to develop her reputation as a writer.

 

While in school, she applied to anything and everything. One thing I am learning with each biography I read is that every success is born of so many failures. I have yet to know of a successful person who had a golden road before them. Even the most brilliant and accomplished people failed and failed and failed. (This gives me a lot of hope because I am very good at failing.) Here, Plath received about ten to twenty rejections (at least) for every piece of hers that was accepted. Even though she was a writer from the start, her best work didn’t come until the end of her life.

 

She was plagued with depression for most of her life and her first recorded suicide attempt came while she was at school at Smith. She took rejections to heart and held herself to an incredibly high standard in everything she did. When things didn’t work out, she would fall into a very deep darkness. Complicating her situation was the fact that she had started seeing a doctor for her depression who prescribed electric shock therapy. The therapy which in retrospect is barbaric and cruel was made worse so for Plath because it was not administered properly. She was left alone in the room after her shock treatments. The physical and psychological effects devastated her and seem to clearly lead to her suicide attempt.

 

I wonder if we will ever understand mental illness. Who can really know anything about it? The patient is lost and confused because they are stuck in a never ending circle of trying to reconcile if how they are feeling is basically nothing more than a severe personality defect or a basic inability to ‘handle’ life or if there is a true chemical cause for their moods and reactions to life. Even when doctors tell someone that they suffer from one mental illness or another, it is extremely difficult for the patient to draw the line as to where their self-responsibility ends and where the illness takes over.

 

No one can know the darkness, the hopelessness and the paranoia that comes with mental illness unless they have themselves experienced it. Outside of this personal experience there is often doubt, criticism and misunderstanding. Often times, inside of this experience, there are similar feelings as well.

 

So, as much as we dissect and try to understand Plath, to some extent we will never be able to. Her personal demons were surely elusive, even to her. One person who is portrayed as the great antagonist in her life is her husband Ted Hughes. They entered a whirlwind romance and were soon married. The marriage was both extremely productive and destructive. From this biographer’s account, Plath set the foundation for Hughes success in many ways. She secretly submitted his work to many publications and was his literary agent. She helped him make his name and encouraged him to write, always putting her own work on the back burner to help maintain Hughes.

 

What was Ted Hughe’s role and responsibility in the death of Plath? There are those of the school of thought that an individual does not have a responsibility for any other human. I strongly support this view unless (and forgive my legal side here) they assume the responsibility. If someone enters into a relationship with a mentally vulnerable person, if they know that someone is suicidal and self-destructive and then they offer themselves again and again, then they have assumed a responsibility for that person. Here Hughes does exactly that. He knows Plath’s vulnerabilities and then exploits them. He uses her loyalty to him for as long as he needs it and when something else comes his way, he abandons her. He knows that it is killing his wife for him to abandon her. He does not give her warning or preparation. One day he loves her and the next he is walking into another lover’s arms. It is my view that there is nothing more inhumane, selfish and monstrous than walking away from someone who loves and needs you. Perhaps it is too demanding a view of the world but the consequences are severe, and so perhaps it is ok to demand such a high standard.

 

Here, Hughes leaving Plath led to her most severe bout of depression leading to her suicide soon after. Hughes’ curse does not end there. He marries his mistress and she moves into the home he shared with Plath and attends to her two children. Soon, she too has a child with Hughes. She is also a writer and lives in the shadow of Plath. Not many years later, she kills herself as well. However, unlike Plath she also kills her baby. Perhaps she could not stand the idea of another one of Hughes lovers stepping in and raising her children like she did Plaths. Almost forty years after her suicide, Plath’s son with Hughes also kills himself. Could Hughes have prevented all this? I think so.

 

Although the writing in this book is pretty terrible, Plath’s story is an amazing one and this book is definitely worth the read. It is mesmerizing and highlights the frailty of someone who suffers from mental illness despite any of the successes they may have in this life. 

book reviews

Book: Dreams From My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barak Obama
Read: 8/13/2009
Rating: 5.5/10

What a slow and often times painful read!! There were so many points throughout the book that I found myself thinking blah blah blah. The main reason I think I found this book so disappointing is because there was a big gap between my expectation and understanding of Obama now in comparison to the time when he wrote this book. He was still quite young, had just finished his stint as a community organizer in Chicago and the book ends with his journey to Kenya where he tries to reconcile the race he has inherited but never really felt he could claim. His writing is not bad but he weighs down on details and exposes us to some of his inner struggles that at times are not the easiest to sympathize with.
Obama’s mother and father met while they were students in Hawaii. His mother is white and his father black. His parents split up when he was very young with his father eventually returning to Kenya, leaving Obama to be raised by his white mother and grandparents. Obama greatly struggles with his racial identity in this context. In a time where racism was legally validated he had to reconcile what it meant to be a black man who was often degraded by white people with the fact that his own family at home was white.
Before reading this book I always took offense to people saying that Obama was ‘black.’ For all intents and purposes he is half-black and half-white. I have often heard my mixed friends complain that they hate when they are identified as one race or another, feeling as if they are expected to deny their mother or father’s background just because of how they look.
Reading about his experience allowed me to understand why Obama can legitimately “claim” his “blackness.” Despite the fact that he was raised with status and privilege not afforded to most black men in his era, he still faced the challenges, hurdles and racial stereotypes that come with being a black man. For those purposes it didn’t matter at all whether he was half, a quarter or five percent black. As long as society saw him as black, he carried the black man’s burden in at least some ways.
He writes, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear. Burdens we were to carry with style.” But later he also adds, “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.”
In one of my favorite passages in the books he starts to come to terms with his father, who has been absent and has grown into a mythical creature in his mind. “He had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn’t seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives; their father’s body shrinking, their father’s best hopes dashed, their father’s face lined with grief and regret.” As he comes to learn of his father’s faults he recognizes that “all my life I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost!”
In his trip to his father’s homeland Obama begins to reconcile his identity and fill the missing pieces of his life. He concludes by realizing, “I saw my life in America- the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago- all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brother’s questions. Their struggle, my birthright.”

Standing in the light of your halo, got my angel now

I have been reading another blog where the writer has made a goal to read 100 books each year and on her blog she keeps a progress report of what or how much she reads. This has inspired me to set a reading goal for myself. I decided that starting on August 1 I will read 50 autobiographies in the next year. I picked autobiographies because they inspire me so much. I am amazed by the things people can accomplish and the power of the human spirit to survive. Autobiographies fill me with hope like donuts fill me with fat grams.  
Today I was at Borders and had some time to kill before my ride showed up. With no intention of actually starting to work towards my goal, I decided to scope out the autobiographies. My eyes fell upon Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou. In her introduction to this book she says, “I have one son, but I have many, many daughters all over the world. This book is for my daughters.” 
I sat down in front of the shelf of books and started to read the first few pages. I was hooked right away. Maya Angelou is a poet. No matter what it is she writes, it is has a rhythm that invites you in and then holds you there. 
Without even realizing it I found myself in a comfy couch and for the next 166 pages I was completely immersed in Maya Angelou’s stories and advice. The most touching pieces for me were the ones that discussed her relationship with her mother. In one story, Maya Angelou talks about how she became pregnant at the age of 16. She was uncomfortable and insecure in her already six foot frame that looked nothing like a woman to her. After ongoing propositions from a suitor she finally gave in, hoping the act would fledge her body into womanhood. She went to meet the boy at an arranged place and time, where she describes what were 20 clumsy minutes. 
She left the place without even remembering if they said goodbye. Nine months later she would give birth to her son. Her brother Bailey convinced her not to tell her mother until she finished high school so she could graduate. As soon as high school was over, she told her step-father through a note she left on his pillow. Terrified, she didn’t sleep that night. The next morning he knocked on her door asking her to join him for breakfast. He added as a side bar that he had read her note. 
He helped her call her mother who came home immediately from her travels. Maya Angelou was 8 months and 1 week pregnant. Her mother asked if she knew who the boy was. She did. She asked Maya if she loved him. She didn’t. “Then there is no use in ruining three lives,” her mother said and told her she would support her fully. During the delivery, her mother who was a registered nurse, told her jokes and stories, waiting to say the punch lines at her most painful moments. 
Reading the story in Maya’s words… from the fear that comes with becoming pregnant at such a young age to witnessing her mother’s unconditional love brought me to tears. It is in the hardest and most difficult moments of our lives that we need to be able to turn to those who we love and not even have to open our eyes, not even have to take a deep breath and know that we can fall and they will catch us. To read about her mother’s tremendous love for her in this incident and so many others was incredibly inspiring and moving. It made me want to be such a mother, such a friend and such a daughter. It helped me realize why Maya Angelou is so strong and so beautiful.
The other main theme that really inspired me in this book was Maya Angelou’s message to live life with courage. In one section she thanks the lovers. She thanks them for being brave enough to be in love. She discusses what courage it takes to be in love with someone. I think it is so easy to love someone but to let someone love us- now that takes guts! It is so rare to find someone that loves you unconditionally and it is so commonplace to have been hurt and betrayed that it feels like a revolutionary act to trust someone to love you. 
And I don’t think she was talking about the typical lovers. Quite frankly, when most people say they are in love, they are just insecure. They are with their partners merely because they like the feeling that someone loves them, or they are afraid to be alone. That is why dysfunctional relationships and co-dependencies are so common. People aren’t loving each other, they are running or hiding. That is why you see so many girls, and sometimes guys abandon their friends and go into a hole where they count on their partner for everything. The foundation of their love is so weak that they jealously guard it, they run away from anything that might question it. People sometimes describe the beginning of a relationship as feeling like an addiction and that is profoundly sad.  
But to love someone in a healthy and trusting way, that takes courage. It takes trust in our selves and trust in the love both from us and from our partner. Maya Angelou did a great job of highlighting this and the general courage one must have in life. 
Overall, I would highly recommend reading this book. It is a fast and easy read and there are many great life lessons to take away from it. 
I am also looking for suggestions for what other books to read! I want to take one with me to Dallas and right now I am leaning towards Memoirs by Pablo Neruda because I have been in love with his writing lately. Also, there is a new biography about Albert Camus which looks very promising. Any other suggestions? What is the best autobiography you have read?
Book One: Letter to My Daughter
Read: 7/26/2009
Rating: 8/10