Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Book Roundup

Double Indemnity by Cain: Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck played their parts superbly in the 1950s Hollywood production of this story.  Read it and weep--he threw his life away because he lusted after a cold calculating user of a woman he barely knew.

How the West Was Won by L'Amour: This is a formulaic Western.  The good guys meet the bad guys in the vast unsettled landscape of 19th century Western America.  Trappers, cowboys, railroad men, lawmen, Indians, loose women, desirable women--they're all here in the pages of the book.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.  And I plan to finally watch this movie which was made about 1968.

The Maze Runner by Dashner: Teenage boys find themselves living in a dystopian society without memory of their former lives.  Monsters lurk to destroy them, and the deep tension brings out the Lord of the Flies type of situation.  When Thomas is put in The Glade, he injects new life into the efforts of the boys to find a way out, a way back to wherever they came from.  Anywhere would be better than this place.
The Scorch Trials by Dashner: Sequel to The Maze Runner.  The same group of boys suffers through more horrible experiences while striving to understand their role in the ruined world they dwell in.  Pretty good.
The Death Cure by Dashner: Third in series.  Thomas and his friends finally get to the nitty gritty.  They challenge WICKED, they act for the greater good, and they are in some sense, successful in achieving a dystopian "happy ending."

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Sendker: a Burmese man and woman fall in love.  He is blind, she is unable to walk.  He is forced to move to America and leaves her behind.  50 years later he returns to her.  I was impressed by the true-ness of the love they had for each other, and how the author presents this culture where people had time for each other.  We, in our task-oriented culture, fall short in this way.  I experienced some touching and valuable thoughts reading the book, even though I don't migrate to this kind of story.

Endangered by Littlewood: I read this after our newspaper reviewed it, which they did because it is based right here in PDX.  It's an average novel about a woman who works as a zookeeper and becomes involved in a case of illegal animal trafficking.  I mean, she wasn't doing anything illegal.  She was trying to protect the cache of animals that was discovered after a drug raid in her area.  I resent the author's effort to insert "adult" material that only diminishes the story.  The "f" word is used a few times, and the protagonist hops into the sack w/ a man she has seen twice, and calls it fun.  The joke was on her because . . . well, no spoilers here.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Verne: Wow, I can see why this book was so well received 150 years ago.  Verne's fantastic concoction of a submarine captained by a man determined to eschew all contact with the surface world, is imaginative and adventurous.  He masterly describes sea life, a hunting expedition in a sea forest, meeting strange creatures in the great deep, and what happens when a sub is trapped under an ice berg.  Amazing stuff for the time, when the word submarine referred to everything under the ocean, not to a powered vehicle that could remain submerged for weeks.

Heart of Darkness by Conrad: I get the story, but not why this is such a touted book.  Help me out here.
The Woman in White by Collins: A great 19th century mystery.  It took some chapters to get into the story and learn the characters and their roles.  But then I was hooked.  A mysterious woman who dresses only in white appears in the lives of several characters.  Some are caring and sympathetic toward her without knowing much about her.  Others are threatened by her presence because they do know who she is.  Crime is committed, people are endangered and hurt.  The protagonist puts himself in danger to save the woman he loves.  Good story.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: A cursed jewel taints the life of all who come in contact with it.  Short, intriguing.  Recommend.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Bradley: Flavia de Luce.  A little far-fetched so this one is a notch below the others, but still a good continuation of the series.

The Day of the Jackal by Forsyth: Suspenseful novel about a planned assassination of French president Charles DeGaulle in 1963, based on some genuine attempts on his life that occurred in the early 60s.  I don't know how DG lived long as he did because just about everyone was out to get him.  I could hardly put down this book.  Intrigue and suspense galore.  On the down side, there are a couple of short, graphic scenes and some language, then chapters and chapters without.

The Return of the Dancing Master by Mankell: Intriguing plot of 2 murders in quiet Norwegian town.  A detective who is on leave from his department in another town because he's facing cancer treatment, gets involved on his own in searching for patterns and ultimately, the killer.  It's a good story, but I got a little tired of him going back to his fear of cancer so frequently.  At one point he thought of ending his life before his fight with the disease had even begun.  Yet the book has all the elements of a good mystery.

The Rainbow Trail by Gray: Continuation of Riders of the Purple Sage.  I love the Western-ness of Gray's stories.  The landscape always plays out as a character.  The Mormons are the really bad guys in this story and that makes sense, given the time period it was written.  Good story.

The Historian by Kostkova: I love the setting, the mystery, and the process of solving it.  The vampire-ness of it is a little far fetched but the skillful weaving of the story almost negates that.  Don't be off-put by the low-budget cover.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Eng: Malay woman heals from war trauma by working with a Japanese gardener.  Gardener here doesn't mean someone who plants annuals and calls it good.  He designs gardens on a spiritual level.  It's a meaningful story.

A Death in the Family by Agee: An acclaimed autobiographical story of an unexpected death in America, written in the 30s.  Much has changed.  Even now we could do better dealing with death.

The Life of Pi by Martel: I was enchanted by the movie and just had to read the book.   It's just as enchanting and riveting and deep.  I'll be pondering this one for a while.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Morais: Culinary journey from Bombay to Paris involving Indian man who becomes a French chef against all odds.  Good story.

A River in the Sky by Peters: Way too stuffy English for me.  Husband-wife archaeologists travel to Holy Land, son is kidnapped, husband is insufferable, woman is ridiculous.  Part of a series.

Quiet--the Power of Introverts in a  World That Can't Stop Talking by Cain: I so so wish this book had been written decades ago.  As a child, teenager and young adult, I suffered uncertainty, embarrassment, and rejection because society convinced me there was something terribly wrong with me.  How many times was I asked, "Why don't you say anything?"  "Don't you like us?"  "Cat got your tongue?"  "It's rude not to participate."  And so on.  At times I uncomfortably pretended to be an extrovert (though we didn't use that word then) and usually ended up looking like a fool.  In Quiet, the author extols the virtues of introverts and encourages individuals and companies to enjoy the thoughtful contributions that can be made by this nearly 50% of the population.  We introverts are not stupid or uninterested; we do have a unique way of approaching situations and problems.  Again and again, the examples she uses could have been taken from my own life.  And she reaffirms the fact that though we introverts can and should learn to function in an extrovert world, we are not required to give up the person we are.
Because I Said So by Jennings: Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings both debunks and proves the myths that we grew up with, and those that rule our lives today.  For example, the 10-second/5-second rule about eating food that has dropped on the floor (don't do it!) (but I still do).  Or my Mom's favorite, your hand/head/foot/other appendage will blow off if you hang it out of the car window (could happen).  I listened to the book on tape read by Jennings himself.  He's a snarky guy and comes across as knowing that he's smarter than the rest of us.  The book is enjoyable and "fun" but after he presented the myth and discussed it, he would rate it true or false (or in between) without re-iterating the basic question.  Because this was audio, I couldn't look back to refresh on the original question.

Bringing Adam Home by Standiford: We all remember the Adam Walsh case in 1981.  And how his parents re-bounded from the horror by establishing organizations dedicated to locating missing children.  They brought the issue front and center, forcing changes in how law enforcement treats these cases.  John Walsh has commented that it was easier for police to locate a stolen car than a stolen child, at that time.  Walsh went on to hose America's Most Wanted which led to the arrest of hundreds of fugitives over a period of years.  Such a poignant story.

Between Good and Evil by Depue: Author made a career out of profiling criminals.  He developed much of the technique used today.  After several decades of being sucked into the worst aspect of mankind, he entered a Catholic seminary to rest his soul and mind.  I appreciated learning how it is that law enforcement can figure out what kind of suspect to look for.  The book mentions some of the horrible things that have happened to people, but through all that the author's pity and compassion for victims and their families comes through.

The Devil's Dozen by Ramsland: Like the previous book, the author goes into some terrible serial murder cases, an even dozen.  Unlike the previous book, the fine details of catching the criminals are skirted over.  More unlike the previous book, she does not insert love, compassion, empathy.  The gross part of each case she presents are given in great detail.  I skipped over plenty of that.  This book was so cold and clinical that I say, don't read it.  I came away feeling there was nothing of value presented.

Five Days At Memorial by Fink: Euthanasia at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina is examined.  Very detailed--lots of doctors, lawyers, family members, corporate dudes.  It inspired in me sympathy for the doctors in a terrible spot.  The hospital was without power and water, flood waters surrounded it, rumors of roving gangs committing crimes, helicopters that would take only ambulatory patients, communications were faulty, the hospital corporation wasn't reacting.  The author microscopically examines euthanasia.  Even though doctors may have made the best choice they could at the time of crisis, I am glad it ended up before a grand jury.  We can't ever be complacent about something so important.

Indestructible  by Lucas: The autobiography of a World War 2 Marine Medal of Honor winner.  He enlisted at age 14, and at age 17 on Iwo Jima, threw himself on 2 grenades to save the lives of his comrades.  That won him the M of H and a whole bunch of surgeries and a tough life.  He acknowledges God's hand in his life over and over.  He made a lot of mistakes that brought such difficulties into his life.  Lucas is from the South, and the book is written in an honest and folksy way.

Dad is Fat by McGaffigan: stand-up comedian living in 2-bedroom NY apartment w/ 6 children describes his life.  Amusing, funny.

Jerusalem, the Biography by Montefiore: Wow, this book is loaded with fascinating previously unknown (to me) information about Jerusalem.  The author weaves it all together chronologically using strands of culture, religion, politics, families, archaeology, etc.  Now I need to return for another visit.  Beware, the author reveals the graphic horrors practiced by marauders back in the day.

Murder in Brentwood by Fuhrman: OJ case as seen through the eyes of the maligned LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman.  I'm glad to hear his side.  He explains about mishandling of evidence, his own experience being "put on trial" himself and how he could not possibly have done the crazy things he's accused of, even if he had wanted to.  His life was shredded and there was nothing he could do about it.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Seal: German man creates fake persona and moves in circles of the rich and famous families.   Author did not answer everything as to how this man was so successful.  Part of that may be that he was unable to get the perp to talk explicitly about his methods.  He's obviously brilliant and has no qualms about using people to achieve his ends.  Perp has been implicated in murder.  Liked the book.

The Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister and others: Bannister, a non-Jewish woman who suffered greatly during the Holocaust, revealed her past and her diaries near the end of her life.  Her own family had no idea of her pain and suffering because not only was she silent about her past, but she kept all papers and documents double-locked and hidden until the day she chose to reveal them.  After her death her husband published her story.  She lost everyone in her family, and friends and neighbors too.  Evil does not discriminate by religion, race, or nationality.  I'm grateful she revealed her past before her death when she was able to actually talk to her family about it, rather than have them discover the diaries after her death.

Blood Will Out by Kirn: Another twist on the Clark Rockefeller fraud.  This author knew him, was his friend, and was betrayed in so many ways.  The book is kinda weird.  For instance, this crazy author agreed to drive a crippled and partially paralyzed dog, a dog that would have been happier in puppy heaven, from Montana to NY because Clark Rockefeller wanted the dog for a pet.  Clark pays him a few hundred dollars, must less than it cost Kirn to make the trip, but Kirn goes on being Clark's friend, buying into most every lie and sham that Clark cooks up.  It's worth reading though, and do it after reading Seal's book (above).

10 Things I Learned From Bill Porter by Brady: Bill Porter was a well-known door-to-door salesman in Portland Oregon, and for many years the top seller in his company.  What made him unique is that he had cerebral palsy to the degree that his parents were encouraged to put him in a home, and even to his own salesman-face people suggested he could stay home and collect disability.  But he refused.  He wanted to work.  His life has inspired thousands.  Brady was his long-time assistant so her insight is valuable.

The Meaning of Everything by Winchester: The development of the Oxford English Dictionary.   What was forecast to take less than 10 years took about 75 and it's a miracle it could be done before computers were even thought of.   Contributions of English words and their usage poured in from around the world.  These millions of slips of paper were organized and stored and the dictionary began to appear in installments.  The OED is a marvelous monument to the language that has become the world standard.
Outposts by Winchester: This is an easy-reading book in which the author visits almost every remaining British territory on the planet.  Most are tiny, remote outposts (hence the title), remnants of a once vast empire.

1 Dead in Attic by Rose: Gruesome title of a compilation of post-Katrina newspaper columns by the author, who wrote for the Times-Picayune.   The title refers to the emergency responders' practice of spray painting needs on the outside of dwellings as they searched for survivors.  Recovering the dead was a low priority while there was still a chance of finding living people.  Not every section of this book is riveting (for instance, the parts where he goes on about how great New Orleans is, when it sounds like a living hell for introverts), but enough of it is that you must read it.  We who live far from New Orleans have no idea what ghastly horrors went on in the lives of survivors.

Atlantic by Winchester: Biography of the Atlantic Ocean from the very beginning of time to the present.  Being a west-coaster, I learned a lot about this distant ocean.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by McWhorter: a sometimes hard to read but fascinating book about the development of English.  I'm not a linguist, nor did I ever adore and embrace grammar lessons in English class, but that aside, the author examines English like one would solve a murder mystery and that intrigues me.  He weaves in clues pertaining to English's grammar patterns to determine which other languages had influence in the development of English.  And he debunks old stereotypes.

Katherine Swynford by Weir: Katherine was the wife of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who was the son of King Edward III of England.  Katherine has the distinct honor of being the ancestress of all the monarchs of England for the last 600 years.  Though the author must speculate many times about Katherine's thought and action (necessary as the time period in question is 700 years past, and even as a prominent woman was not extensively written about) and though heavy speculation is not the preferred way to write about an historical figure, I am glad Weir did persevere and give us this biography which provides plenty of insight into those Medieval times.

Angela's Ashes by McCourt: Second reading, only this time I listened to it read by McCourt Himself.  Is their a more amusing and tragic book than Angela's Ashes?  The Irishness of it is genuine to the core.

Serial #1 (12 parts) by Koenig: This is actually a podcast, but feels like a book, and is a riveting true-crime story.  It has people everywhere blogging about it, creating websites for discussion and analysis of the the facts in the case, and it has our family constantly emailing about inconsistencies in the testimonies of various participants in the case, or the meaning or lack of meaning of points of evidence.  If you haven't listened to this, google it and get going.

John Adams by McCullough: I love and honor John Adams and this book is a pretty thorough statement on his remarkable life.  He is one of those people who clearly was meant to live in his place and time, to do his patriotic duty against great odds.  Highly recommend.  On the down side (but no fault of the book), I listened to this lengthy recording and hated the narrator.  His voice was good, but he breathed loud and swallowed loud.  Could some of that not been edited out?  It distracted me big time.

The Age of Sacred Terror by Benjamin: Yikes, there's a lot of scary stuff in this book.  I have been to Muslim countries and have Muslim friends, so I know that like any other group, the vast majority are sane, hard-working, rational people.  But the fringe radicals exhibit twisted thinking that a Westerner will never comprehend.  And they are not reticent to justify horrible acts by reaching back 1300 years to some obscure act or writing of Mohammed that they think implies he expects them to do horrid things in the name of Allah.  I haven't read the Koran; maybe there are passages like that.  But the Old Testament has them too and modern Christians understand God doesn't desire us to follow that pattern.  Anyway, the author also goes into what the US did and did not do pre-911 about the terrorist threat.   Unfortunately the book is over 10 years old and much has changed in that time, not the least of which was the death of OBL.
The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay by Hooman Majd: Title doesn't accurately describe the experience of an Americanized Iranian man bringing his American family to live for a year in Tehran.  He wasn't dis-invited.  Book is a little tiresome and dull.

Lagovina Street by Demick: During the early 90s's 4-year siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs, life "moved on" on Lagovina Street.  This particular street was chosen by the author as a study of life during the siege.  The residents developed coping strategies.  What did they have to cope with?  Shelling, starvation, death and maiming, third world living conditions, freezing weather with no heat, etc.  The focus of the book is on the lives of those affected by appalling conditions and situations brought on by pointless war, rather than on the war itself.  So worth reading.

The House in the Sky by Lindhout: While working as a journalist in Somalia, author was kidnapped for ransom by a gang of teenage Muslim extremists intent on earning buckets of cash to fund their jihad.  Their demands were so outrageous monetarily that her family could not come up with the money for 15 months (when the amount was reduced).  She suffered terribly.  But she employed survival strategies and came out of it the victor, and then founded an organization to provide education in Somalia.  Remarkable, though excruciatingly painful story.

Three Cups of Deceit by Krakauer: Author exposes Greg Mortensen, founder of Central Asian Institute, devoted to building schools in impoverished Pakistani villages.  He claims Mortensen has lied and misused the money donated by good-hearted folks.  It's sad, but appears to be true, that Mortensen did not have the miraculous experiences he claimed, that led him to supposedly do great things.

A Captain's Duty by Phillips: I'll put this book under politics (given the delicate international conditions involved) but it could go under the adventure category as well.  The gripping story has been turned into a pretty good movie [Captain Phillips] which I saw before reading the book.  Phillips captains the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship which was taken by Somali pirates about 3 years ago.  For a while he outwits his captors, at least long enough to keep the crew safe.  He ends up in a lifeboat with these 4 crazy pirates and comes close to losing his life as tensions mount.  The "living" conditions he survived could have killed people without extra "help" from maniacal pirates and their automatic weapons.  He lived to write this book; I recommend it.

Science and Adventure
Adrift on an Icepan by Grenfell: A hundred years ago this British physician was working in Labrador, serving the fishermen of that forlorn place.  On his way to a medical case via dog sled he finds himself adrift on a fragile ice floe in an angry sea.  What a gripping story!

Worst Journey in the World by Cherry-Garrard: The author was one of those who discovered the bodies of Robert F. Scott and his companions at the South Pole.   Written not quite 100 years ago, he delves into the finest details of Scott's winter journey across Antarctica.  Other explorers could use this book as a manual describing weather and snow conditions as well as terrain and supplies needed to sustain an expedition.  I listened to this on my iPhone and would probably have not been able to wade through it in book form.  As with Into the Silence described below, I'll never understand why people willingly subject themselves to such misery.

Into the Silence by Wade Davis: After WW1 a group of patrician British men decided it was imperative that the British be the first to reach the top of Everest.  The country had been devastated not by battle on their own soil during the war, but by the loss of much of a generation of young men who fell in the mud of France.  Everest beckoned to them as a way to re-inspire a damaged generation, a mourning country.  It seems absurd that the climbers who were chosen were not necessarily those who had the best chance of success.  Class and personal prejudices weighed in the balance as the climbing party was assembled.  Reconnaissance and attempts were made in 1921, 1922, 1924.  The perils of each expedition, personalities and pitfalls of the party, and the misery endured by all is well detailed.

The Map That Changed the World by Winchester: William Smith, a 19th century man interested in earth, basically founds the science of geology by creating a map showing the stratification of England and Scotland.  This is such an interesting and marvelous story, and shows how a very average person with a passion can make a difference in the world.  His findings were invaluable because they paved the way for advances in industry.  Smith, however, suffered from inertia and low self-esteem that held him back until late in life.  Great story.

Death in Yellowstone by Whittlesey: Author has worked at Yellowstone National Park for decades.  He divides the deaths in the Park into categories and reviews each one, using memories of employees, old Park records, newspaper articles, etc.  Lots of them are pretty gruesome, especially ones involving the hot pools and bear attacks.  Though many were simply accidental, plenty of people "brought it on" through carelessness.  Examples of that are hiking alone, not storing food properly which attracts bears, jumping into boiling pools, taking a hike in sub-zero temperatures, etc. People might be repelled by this book, but I found it educational.  I will never again carelessly leave chapstick in my tent while camping in bear country.

The Crack in the World by Winchester: Detailed study understandable to the layman, of the geology of the US.  Focusing on the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, the author embroiders around that event by educating the reader about the physical land on which they live.  I deeply love learning stuff like this.

Alone on the Ice by Roberts: During the age of exploration of Antarctica 100 years ago, a lesser-known expedition organized out of Australia spends a harrowing time on the continent.  It was slow-going for me at first, trying to keep all of the men straight with their quirks and personalities and roles in the expedition.  The author jumped around to other previous expeditions at times, but once I plowed through all of that and even listened to some of it twice, I got the gist of who was who.  One leader named Mawson, survived the impossible--being alone on the ice sheet after his companions had expired, falling into crevasses and saving himself, pushing on when the soles of his feet had fallen off, and so on.  He missed the rescue ship by 6 hours leading to another year in Antarctica.  Wow.

Did Not Finish
Red Storm Rising by Clancy: I'm done w/ Tom Clancy.  The Hunt For Red October was gripping.  In this book every page is full of complicated Russian names, indescribable relationships, chock full of scientific details, all set amid crappy language.  If it wasn't for the latter, I would try harder to plow through it.  But no.  "F" words in every conversation are a deal-breaker.