Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scorpions - Review and Giveaway

Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices
by Noah Feldman
November 2010

Scorpions – the title references a description of the Supreme Court Justices as “nine scorpions in a bottle” – is the story of four widely different justices all appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  These four, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson and William O. Douglas could not have been more dissimiliar.  Frankfurter, a Jew was perhaps the most liberal voice in the country when Roosevelt appointed him to the court.  Black was a southern country lawyer former KKK member with an altogether unique interpretation of the constitution, Jackson, a plain spoken lawyer seeking a pragmatic resolution to court cases and Douglas, a westerner who defined wide limits for individual freedom.  I enjoyed the detail and back story the author presented on all of these men.  The intellectual growth that allowed these men to listen, learn and change their minds from where they started was so appealing in this story.  Black from a KKK member to perhaps the strongest civil rights supporter on the court.  Frankfurter from the most liberal to arguably the most conservative member of the court. I was fascinated at how men of such widely divergent backgrounds could come together to decide some of the most important issues of the twentieth century.  The background of the Japanese internment in WWII, Truman’s seizure of the steel mills, civil rights and lastly the Brown v. the Board of Education decisions are all covered with the deliberations and interactions that led to the court decisions.  Personalities are on full display.  I admit much of the legal theories were lost on me and did for me (the clearly non legal reader) drag out the story a bit but I still enjoyed this book as a history of the Supreme Court and the justices who served there.  In today’s acrimonious political environment one really longs for the time when disagreements were discussed, debated and had compromises developed that moved the country forward.  A good narrative history of the Supreme Court in the mid twentieth century.
I have three copies of SCORPIONS for a giveaway, if you would like to participate, click here

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading a book v. audiobooks - a few favorites

Given a choice I will always read a book, but I have become addicted to audiobooks when  I drive.  I don't do a daily communte but do spend 5-6 hours/week in a car.  The addiction started when I drove to Florida two years ago and listened to  What is the What.  W/W was the OneBook OnePhiladelphia selection a few years ago, so there were lots of copies at the library.  I was enchanted with the reader of this novel and ended up with a literary experience that was much different than if I had read this book.  What is the What is the fictionalized, but mostly true story of a Lost Boy of Sudan.  Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s.  The reader of this novel Dion Graham (The Wire, Law and Order) was sensational and for me added a new dimension to the story.   Even though this story, unabridged is 16 hours long I highly recommend, it hooked me on audiobooks.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an audiobook with multiple readers, always a feature to look for when choosing an audiobook.  This is also high on my list, especially recommended for medical professionals.  I wrote a full review of this one, read it here.  Twelve hours and 30 minutes, read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin.

Nine Dragons is a Michael Connolly/Harry Bosch novel.  I have read a lot of these stories so I wasn't quite prepared for the voice of this character.  It was not what I "heard" when I read the story, but I did enjoy it.  The suspense in the audiobook matched the written word.  It was read by Len Cariou and is 11 hours in length.

Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, Handle with Care - all of these were written by Jodi Picoult and are read by a cast of narrators.  I normally don't read Picoult because of the intense and sometimes horrific things that happen to children in her novels but the audio books were riveting.  Unabridged they are between 10 and 12 hours long.  

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris.  This recording is a series of essays each about 30 to 40 minutes long, read by the author.  Sedaris has a droll sense of humour that is not for everybody but I found them funny and engaging and kind of perfect if you have a traveling companion that is not signed on to listen to 10-12 hours of a traditional audiobook. 

Murder on the Links and One Two Buckle Your Shoe   There are a number of BBC full cast dramatizations of Agatha Chrisite novels.  These are two that I have listened to.  They are very different than the unabridged audio books..  They are mostly less than three hours long.  They have casts that number up to 25 actors.  Listening to these books is more like listening to an old time radio show (not that I have first hand experience!) rather than an audio book.  Perfect for light listening.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
by David Mitchell
June 2010
Random House

This book starts out very slowly as it introduces a plethora of characters. It is set in Nagasaki at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutchman, working for the Dutch East India Company in Japan. He has left the Netherlands in hopes of making a fortune in the East so he can marry the girl he is leaving behind. Jacob comes to Deijima, a manmade island that the Japanese have set up as the sole location for trade with the West. Jacob is traveling with the new chief, Unico Vostenbosch, who is tasked with rooting out company corruption. Jacob is a likeable, honest, even eager acolyte in serving the company, a position which gives rise to conflicts with the existing corrupt staff. The non-Japanese (Dutch, Irish, English, Ceylonese and American) are physically confined to this island as the Japanese attempt to keep Japan closed to western influences. Jacob meets and quickly falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese mid-wife. This relationship is not possible in this setting, so Jacob uses some subterfuge to convey to her his feelings. This section of the book is slow going and somewhat frustrating as the interactions between the Europeans and the Japanese plod along. No doubt intentional on the author’s part to allow us to feel the stifling atmosphere experienced here.

In the middle section of the book, Orito is literally “engifted” to a nunnery to pay off her late father’s debts. The shrine where she is sent is overseen by an evil lord, Enomoto, who with his monks is impregnating the women and then murdering their children. Orito has been brought there to serve as the midwife for the nunnery. She is deeply unhappy and contemplates escape. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon also is in love with Orito. When a scroll outlining the terrible acts committed at the nunnery comes into Uzaemon’s possession he decides to act to free Orito. Before going off Uzaemon gives the scroll to Jacob. Uzaemon is not successful in freeing Orito and is killed by Enomoto.

In the last section of the book a British frigate arrives and the actions that follow set the stage for all of the plot lines to be pulled together. I won’t give away the ending but I found it deeply satisfying.

The historical aspects of this novel are well researched and ring true. The setting for this story is exotic, rich and gripping. The author’s ability to write dialogue for characters from different ethnic backgrounds and account for their language and style is exceptional and adds to the realism of this story. His ability to place these characters within the world events of the time period also adds to the richness of this story. The love story while somewhat understated I found to be very powerful and even haunting. The author is able to describe Japan and Japanese society in a way that shows it to be corrupt but also alluring and complex.

This book requires more attention than your standard summer read but in my opinion is an epic saga full of adventure and memorable characters - well worth the time.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Room: A Novel

By Emma Donoghue
September 2010
Little, Brown and Company

I found this to be a somewhat amazing book. This review will contain lots of spoilers so if you have not read it, stop right now and run out to get your copy. It is the story of five year old Jack and his mother. They are living in a single room and have done so for the entire five years of Jack’s life. Initially you are not told why they are confined to this room, but as the story proceeds you learn the horrific truth – that Jack’s mother has been kidnapped, held and continually raped by his father. The story is told in Jack’s voice from his perspective as a precocious child. What an imaginative story it is! His persona is unfailing positive in the face of the threatening situation in which they live. I was blown away by the creativity and ability of this author to present the story in such a clever way. Jack’s mother works to provide a safe environment for him all the while teaching, training and generally entertaining him within the confines of the room. Jack is totally unaware of the outside world but is happy and contented within the room – “...I have thousands of things to do each day”.

While Jack is carefree and fun loving, the reader comes to realize the situation and the terrible fate that faces Jack and his mother. His mother is also aware of the threat to them, but successfully keeps Jack feeling safe. After a very threatening time – power is cut, food supply dwindling - Jack’s mother organizes an escape plan for them that relies on the five year old to perform some heroic feats. The suspense builds as the escape plan is hatched. This section of this book is as thrilling as any suspense novel I’ve read.

The last half of the book deals with Jack’s introduction to the outside world. While it is also well written and very entertaining it is not as riveting as the first half of the novel. His mother must deal with news media, changed family relationships and emotions that roller coaster up and down. Jack separates from the close relationship he has had with his mother and starts to develop as an independent person seeing himself as others see him. Jack’s experiences in learning about the outside world are funny and poignant. In the end mother and son seem to triumph over adversity. I thought the ending where they return to the room of their captivity (a shed in the kidnapper’s back yard) and decide they can go forward with their lives was a good one.

I really liked this book. I thought the author, Emma Donoghue, took a ripped from the headlines story (see Josef Fritzl) and ingeniously turned it into something special. Might be the best book I’ve read this year.  This book was short listed for the Mann-Booker prize last week  but alas did not win.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

by Christopher Moore
Harper Paperbacks
February 2003

This is a book I’d never pick on my own but it came with a strong recommendation from a friend. It’s tough to categorize this story, certainly it is humorous but there is more to it than that.
The story features Biff (aka Levi) a young Jewish boy who is Joshua’s (aka Jesus H. Christ) best friend. It covers the years of Joshua’s life from birth to the age 30 and since there is little in the gospels about these years the author has free reign to tell a story. It’s a pretty good story! Biff and Joshua meet and fall in love with Mary Magdalene (aka Maggie), travel extensively in Asia and the Indian sub continent, and after an absence of 17 years arrive back in Israel to begin Joshua’s work as the Messiah. While the pretext of the story might sound offensive to some, it really isn’t. Moore handles the formative years of Joshua in an irreverent but ultimately reverential way. The story moves quickly and is in many places laugh out loud funny – no really it is! Some of the humor is witty, some really witty and some sophomoric but still witty. But under all of the humor the author has taken care to show through the travels of Biff and Joshua the connections between Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. He also puts a really human face on Joshua in describing him as a young Hebrew boy coming to terms with his destiny as the Messiah. While the humor is constantly there the messages about friendship, love and duty are also strong. Because the humor can be nonstop I think this book is best read and savored in small segments.
The first three quarters of the book are imaginative and original but the story weakens when Joshua returns to Israel and the gospel story rules the narrative.  This book is great humor in the best traditions of Catch 22 and all of the P. G. Wodehouse stories. I’d strongly recommend it, I found it to be a nice change of pace from my usual read.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Reversal

The Reversal (Harry Bosch)

by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Co.
October, 2010

The Reversal brings together Mickey Haller, erstwhile defense attorney (Brass Verdict, Lincoln Lawyer) with long time Connelly hero LAPD detective Harry Bosch. The men are half brothers but uncomfortable allies in this thriller. Haller, a fairly brash and arrogant character in earlier novels has matured and hence crosses over to the district attorney’s side to prosecute a child murderer who is being released from prison after 24 years. His release is based on a new DNA finding. Bosch is in a supporting role as his investigator though he is almost a co-lead in this story. Also playing a supporting role is Haller’s ex-wife Maggie McPherson as a prosecuting attorney assisting Haller in this case. One of the things I like so well about the Connelly novels is the way he develops and continually expands our knowledge of his characters; when he intermingles them in novels that only adds to the fun.

The story, replete with the expected twists and turns is a convincing police/legal procedural certainly up to the standard we have come to expect from Connelly. The action is fast paced and I think tempts the reader to stay up half the night finishing this story. There were two items that prevented me from giving this story five stars. One I struggled with the change in voice. When Haller spoke it was in the first person, when Bosch was the key character it was described in the third person. This might have worked if Bosch was not so frequently present in the story, but for me it was confusing and took some getting used to as the action moved along. The second problem for me was the ending, it was without drama. I won’t give away the ending but I bet you guess what happens fairly quickly. There was lots of psychological baggage and moral ambiguity picked up by both Haller and Bosch that I am sure will reappear in future novels. Definitely a solid effort from Connelly!