2011 Books A-Z: Titles

A is for The Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Let me start by saying I love, love, LOVE Zafón‘s The Shadow of the Wind. It’s an all-time favorite and a must-read for book lovers. So with all that book baggage, picture me cracking open The Angel’s Game with mucho expectations. Now picture me disappointed when it fell mucho short.

Problemo Uno: Zafon used a key player from Shadow of the Wind and his role just didn’t make sense here.

Problemo Dos: Creepy kinda super-fantastical stuff which really isn’t my deal.

Problemo Tres: I just didn’t enjoy it.

So beware. But if you like creepy kinda super-fantastical stuff and you haven’t read and fallen in love with The Shadow of the Wind, then The Angel’s Game may be your cup of tea.

Rating: 2 stars
Pages: 544
Genre: Fiction

V is for A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

When I saw the cover of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, I immediately wanted to read it. I mean, isn’t it great? The composition and color and the tweaked out guitar strings are just perfect. And then I read the summary and I was kind of nonplussed. It seemed to echo the summaries of books like Bright Lights, Big City or Less Than Zero which I have had no desire to read (shock, horror, I know, whatever) about privileged people doing a lot of drugs and screwing up and maybe there’s redemption and maybe there’s not. Who knows? I haven’t read them. Go figure.

But then, I needed a V book and it had that damn-near perfect cover. It also didn’t hurt any that Egan just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for A Visit from the Goon Squad either. So I caved. Because really, I am not that shallow about books. Just shallow enough that Visit starts with V and fills a void on my alphabetical list.

Here’s the thing about A Visit from Goon Squad: There are some privileged people. There are some drugs. There’s even some screwing up. But there’s also some of the most creative storytelling I have read in a long time. A Visit from the Goon Squad is far from ordinary. It’s a contemporary novel told from the various perspectives of its many and varied main characters: Sasha a younger-looking-than-she is music industry assistant with a tiny kleptomania problem; Bennie, her middle-aged manager struggling to find and book the next big act; Lou an overly tanned, skirt chasing father of 6 (by 3 different wives) who attempts to defy the passage of time; Dolly (aka La Doll) an out of work PR maven who gets her groove back making the worst (the really really worst) look their best; Jules Jones, a celebrity reporter who lands himself in jail after failing to keep his business all about the business.

That’s probably only half of them. And Egan has them all interconnected, all telling their story from their own unique voice. From that perspective, it’s really a sort of mini masterpiece. Never once could I tell where the story was going and that kept me not only interested, but invigorated, much like the characters at their most energetic moments. Egan accomplishes a significant amount of character development, considering how many key players there are and I was astonished how impacted I was by just a few of them who had smaller, bit parts to play (oh sweet Rolph!).

A Visit from the Goon Squad is different. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. Perhaps had I read more (or more of the stuff I have tended to avoid), I may not feel this way. Who knows? What I do know, is I thoroughly enjoyed it, in all of the quirky, eclectic goodness that it is.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 352 pages
Genre: Fiction

C is for Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Let me start by saying I was less than thrilled to be reading Cutting for Stone. Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify that statement. I really wanted to read this book. I was actually excited when it came up for my March Book Club. But then the excitement quickly faded and I realized that it was sixhundredandeightyeight pages (gulp) and I would have just a week to read it (unlike my fellow book clubbers who would have a month). Forget the gulps. This was freak out time.

Fortunately, having done this book-a-week thing before, I had a bunch of cheerleaders in my court. Friends who believed me able to do this much more than I believed myself. So, with that support, I dove into Vergheses ambitious and epic tale of two brothers.

It quickly turned out to be one of my busier weeks in the world of life. And in two or three days’ time, I had only knocked out 110 pages.

Uh oh.

But then the weekend came, and with my folks here and taking it easy, and the kiddo with his dad… I plowed. I read and read like I have never read before. And I finished CUTTING FOR STONE in a whopping three days. A feat achievable only because the book is tremendously good.

Written by a physician, Cutting for Stone is a complex and multilayered story of Mary Joseph Praise, a devout nun, who dies while delivering conjoined twin boys. Left parentless, the boys, Marion and Shiva are raised by doctors at the Missing Hospital in Adis Ababa, a hospital that cares for the poorest of poor.

Marion narrates the saga which spans over 5o years, multiple contents and conflicts that cover coming of age, connection, betrayal, renewal and redemption. Any so many ways and at so many levels, it is a love story. Love for others, self, our place in the world and our ability to impact our surroundings.

Two of my favorite passages (and there are a far many more) from the book:

“As the twin boys struggled after birth, and her colleagues struggled with the loss and shock around them, they remembered Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s regular directives: Make something beautiful of your life. As the boy’s adoptive mother contemplates her own place in the world: Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”

There’s too much story to cover in this review, and in no way could I summarize it as beautifully as Verghese tells it. Cutting for Stone is a perfectly woven, entirely engrossing novel about human experiences, while likely different from our own, tell a story we can all identify with and appreciate.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 688
Genre: Fiction

P is for Poke the Box by Seth Godin

I feel like I have been hearing about Seth Godin for years. I even feel like I have read some of his books, although I am not sure why that is, because I never have. Maybe it’s because I have heard him talk about his books and I would always think: That sounds really interesting. I ought to pick that up, or at least add it to my amazon wish list. So, I would make a mental note to do that. I would think about picking his books up. I would make a decision that I should pick up his books, but I never would. In Godin’s own words, I failed to “poke the box.”

As it turns out, there’s a lot of people like me, not poking the box. We think, we plan, we idealize. We may even fund or support others in poking the box, yet we don’t do it.

What is Seth talking about? Starting.

Starting what? Just starting. Anything.

In Poke the Box, Godin’s latest effort, poking the box could be starting that diet. That closet reorganization. A new process you are certain will make things better at work. And instead of waiting for approval, or all the lights to be green, or the perfect day for closet organizing to come along. You. Just. Start.

And sometimes a start will follow by a swift stop. But that’s okay. Keep starting, Godin implores (yes, implores. He’s pretty passionate about this box poking thing). And, while Poke the Box focuses on more business applications, you can poke the box, anywhere, in any environment. That’s the beauty of it.

It’s the idea that many starts will result in a stop, but we must keep at it. We must keep poking the box. The act of starting is the accomplishment that will ultimately (when done time and time again) result in success. And when you keep doing it, your success rate will increase.

Imagine that?

Sounds pretty novel, right? And yet, this idea of starting–or I should say action of starting–isn’t rocket science. It’s benefits are pretty obvious. We all beneft when we have people everywhere, poking the box. Moving the mark. Starting.

And so many of us don’t. For a number of reasons, namely, fear. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of lost time. Fear of lost energy. We can create any number of reasons why we shouldn’t do something, and in that time of selfpreservation and overrationalization do you know what we could have done?

We could have just started.

Rating: 3 stars
Genre: Non-fiction

Pages: 96

D is for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

It’s official: Size does matter. At least it does when it comes to books; and especially when we are talking about books that need to be consumed within a week. I found myself just yesterday afternoon still putting off the March book club mandate of 600+ pages and in an absolute tailspin about what to read this week that was short on pages, high on interest and starting with a letter of the alphabet that I hadn’t yet covered.

Oh boy.

Enter: One bookstore, a perfectly blended chai tea latte, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. At 131 pages, I knew I had hit the knock-it-out-in-one-sitting jackpot. But where the book lacks in length, Bauby more than makes up in heart.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Bauby’s memoir, painstakingly dictated to a speech therapist through his only means of communication: The blinking of an eye. At 43, Bauby was full of life, living in France and working as the editor of French ELLE magazine. On the way to an event with his teenaged son, Bauby suffered a massive stroke to his brainstem and was left completely paralyzed–only to retain the functions of his brain and left eye. This type of outcome is often referred to as being “locked in” with no ability to communicate, yet complete awareness of one’s surroundings, total cognition in tact. A sort of total confinement–imprisonment for a crime not ever committed.

And yet, Bauby is heroic in his effort to live. He connects with a speech therapist at the hospital who knows he is more than his incapacitated shell. She patiently works with him, and together, they devise a way to communicate with Bauby blinking at letters of the alphabet she shows him. Once realizing this capability, Bauby works with her to document his story painstakingly “written” one letter at a time.

His story, it turns out, is remarkable; especially when you know what he had to go through to tell it. Add to that only the merest traces of self pity or anguish and you have a completely compelling story. Bauby uses the strength of his mind to call up memories of his past (with his children, his work) and imagines a future he know he won’t ever have (lying next to and caressing his girlfriend, experiencing delectable food). Rarely is there anger; sometimes there is sadness. More often than not, Bauby expresses humor, humility and grace sharing the simplest of details that we so often take for granted.

One of these simple details, his love of letters from friends and how they helped him get through the darker days of his recovery, Bauby beautifully wrote:

“I hoard all of those letter like treasure, One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.
It will keep the vultures at bay.”
Unfortunately, Bauby won’t have that opportunity. Just two days after his memoir was published, Bauby passed away from heart failure. He was making so much progress in his ability to communicate and connect with others that I found this truly heartbreaking. Despite the sadness, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a worthy read (and as I now understand, a well received movie that I will have to check out). Bauby’s story is both devastatingly simple and overwhelmingly complicated. He provides us a great reminder that we are more than our bodies–that there is so very much to appreciate in this life.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 131
Genre: Memoir

H is for Half a Life – Darin Strauss

“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” begins acclaimed author Darin Strauss’ intimate account of a regular day turned tragically inside out and upside down. As shockingly written as any first sentence of a harrowingly told tale, the shock lies in this being the true story of 16 year old Celine Zilke inexplicably swerving into 18 year old Strauss’ car, leaving her dead and Strauss forever changed.

Strauss was not cited. The Long Island police declared the accident completely unavoidable and the insurance company agreed. The books and any potential case were closed. Life could officially continue on. Yet, being absolved of any blame or fault didn’t erase the fact that Celine Zilke was dead and Darin Strauss was involved in her death. These two facts stayed with Strauss, affecting his life in profound and different ways.

Strauss has bravely exposed himself, sharing the complex emotions of grief, anger, fear, guilt and egocentrism he experienced in the years that followed the accident. Processing her death was complicated. Was it an accident? Could he have done something differently? Did Celine want to die? Why on earth would she turn into traffic? In addition to the unrelenting questions swirling in his head, he wrestled with his feelings (what they were, what they should be) and how to fit into a world that now knew him in relation to Celine’s death.

College out of town was a bit of a reprieve. Yet Celine was always with him, not experiencing the things he was able to experience. Creating relationships with new friends or women proved challenging. At what point do you share with someone this part of your past? Celine haunted him, shaped him and helped to create the man and writer that he is today. In fact, Strauss shares that her death likely lead to his work as a writer.

I can’t imagine such a fate. To have known you were involved in another person’s death is incomprehensible and emotionally devastating to me. Still, these types of unimaginable situations happen everyday. While families and communities mourn the loss of life, rarely is time or attention is spent on those who were spared. Half a Life give us that perspective in a completely raw, vulnerable and realistic way.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 204
Genre: Memoir

S is for Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories – Mike Birbiglia

Anyone who knows me, knows I love, love, love Mike Birbiglia. He’s the funniest guy most everyone hasn’t heard of; but that’s about to change. And, no, not because of my review. But because he’s at that place in his career where he’s really taking off. He’s paid his dues growing up an awkward child, into an awkward adult, traveled the country doing standup in every venue imaginable (yes, even for a college study hall, while the kids were trying to study). He’s recorded a few comedy CDs, performed at some larger venues, like the Hollywood Avalon (where I saw him two years ago) and the Tempe Improv (where I saw him again last January). Last year, he had his own one man show, Sleepwalk with Me on Broadway and now he’s got a book, of the same title, that chronicles his life, including his issues with sleepwalking.

Birbigs, as he’s often called, hasn’t produced something I haven’t loved; and I expected this book to be no different. Thankfully I was right. His comedy is made up of great storytelling, and his conversational writing tone carries the same feeling. The only thing that would make reading the book better, would be to watch him tell the stories. He’s hilarious to both watch and hear. Because Birbigs is a storyteller and not a one-liner comedian, it’s hard to pull out any zingers from the book, but here’s my best shot at some of my favorites.

On his love of pizza:

“Pizza is probably my biggest weakness. I love pizza. I would marry pizza, but it would just be an elaborate ploy to eat her whole family at the reception.”

On his love of the Cheesecake Factory:

I simply can’t drive by a Cheesecake Factory without stopping. I love their chicken sandwich the size of a soccer ball and their piece of cake as large as an entire cake. I love the Factory’s generous portions. Their like, “We could sell you grilled cheese sandwiches for a buck fifty, or we could stuff a loaf of bread with three pounds of mozzarella and call it the Mozza Mountain.” And, hey, if the Factory says it’s one serving, who am I to question them? They’re making this stuff to factory specifications.

On his addiction to email (which I share):

I check my phone messages and email about forty-five times a day. I don’t even know what I am expecting to get in these messages. Maybe Visa will call and say, “We just realized that we owe you money!” or I’ll get an email from a high school classmate that says, “We’ve reconsidered and we’ve decided you are cool after all.”

On the multi-tasking ridiculousness of products and technology:

When you go to buy anything these days, the guy’s always like, “You know, it’s also a camera.” And it’s a slippery slope. Like one day I’ll go to the store to buy something and they’ll be like, “It’s also a camera.”

“I just wanted a grapefruit.”

“It’s a camera grapefruit. You take pictures of yourself eating the grapefruit, and then you poop the pictures.

“That is the opposite of what I wanted.”

But Birbigs comedy isn’t all pizza, cameras and Factory specifications.

Growing up, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and in his 30s developed a dangerous sleepwalking condition that has required medical intervention. Even through these challenges, he’s able to keep his sense of humor. Upon being diagnosed with bladder cancer:

“The doctor found something in your bladder.” Whenever they tell you that, it’s never anything good like, “We found something in your bladder… and it’s season tickets to the Yankees!”

It’s really safe to say that I am probably not the most objective reviewer of Sleepwalk with Me. If I had any one complaint, I would say that watching him perform or listening to his comedy CDs is better than reading a book of his. But, if this is all the Birbigs I can get right now… I will take it.

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 189

G is for Goodnight Tweetheart – Teresa Medeiros

I know virtually nothing about Twitter.

I mean, I know that Ashton Kutcher beat cnn.com to reach a million followers and Kenneth Cole found himself in a hot Twitter mess last week. I also know that Twitter is considered micro-blogging (and that’s the one thing that might make me sound like I know a lot more about this social media channel than I actually do). But, the reality is I need to know more about it. A lot more about it. Especially because I am super involved in social media at work; it’s just my focus has been more on Facebook. So, to ease my way into Twitterville, I took the recommendation of my book blogging buddy and dipped into the micro-blogging maelstrom that is Twitter with a delightful little rom-com, Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros.

Advertised as “A Love Story in 140 Characters or Less”, Goodnight Tweetheart centers around Abby Donovan, a novelist experiencing writer’s block after her debut effort tops the charts, earns Oprah’s adoration and almost earns a Pulitzer. Her publisher is getting antsy and in a last ditch effort to keep Abby’s exposure high and momentum going, her agent creates a Twitter account for the fledgling writer.

Within hours, Abby has a small following, including the interest of Mark Baynard, a witty, English Lit professor on sabbatical and traveling the world. Their exchanges are reminiscent of the rapid-fire, pop-culture infused witticisms of The Gilmore Girls, but more flirty since we aren’t talking a mother-daugther relationship here.

As Abby and Mark’s relationship develops, she becomes more smitten with this man who sends her pictures of his European escapades, has faith in her writing and who inspires her in a way that breaks the block that previously had her paralyzed. It would seem that all is peachy between the tweets, but quickly Abby learns that relationships created in an online world of direct messaging and imaginary dates can create a false reality. Abby is now forced to confront the truth about Mark and must decide if a relationship with Mark, online or otherwise, is such a good thing.

I really enjoyed the currency of Goodnight Tweetheart. Published just this year, the pop culture references are as good for the children of the 80s as they are the Gossip Girls set. Medeiros has created an engaging protagonist in Abby and I was left closing the book wanting a sequel. Goodnight Tweetheart rises above the vacuousness found in much of the chick-lit genre; it’s chick-lit for the thoroughly modern, culturally aware woman.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 240
Genre: Chick-lit

I is for The Impostor’s Daughter – Laurie Sandell

Imagine the father you have loved and adored (and in this case, sometimes feared) was not at all who you thought he was. Imagine that by not knowing who he really was, you struggled to understand who you really were. Imagine this disconnect between the real and really unreal challenges your abilities to make real connections with men. Now imagine you have the gift of storytelling and you can also draw.

What does that get you?

Well, if you are Laurie Sandell, and this was your life, it gets you a spot on the shelf with other great graphically told stories. That’s right, The Impostor’s Daughter is my new favorite graphic memoir. And if you have been keeping track, this is only my third graphic memoir and I have really enjoyed all of them. Seems like this genre is treating me well, even if the circumstances don’t treat the story tellers themselves very well.

Sandell noticed early on that her father, who was a highly accomplished individual having served in Vietnam, attended and taught at prestigious universities and earned a Juris Doctorate, also seemed very quick to prove himself an authority on all things and was certain that others were out to undermine him. While many might just write this off as being a know-it-all or a bit paranoid, Sandell paid attention to other clues that her sisters and mother chose to ignore.

So before I give it all away, or more so than the book’s title already tells you, Sandell spends much of her early twenties investigating her father, irritating her sisters and confusing her totally-in-denial mother. In all the various roads her digging takes her, Sandell makes some unhealthy choices for herself. In the end, though, it’s the truth about her father that helps her come to terms with her self.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 272
Genre: Graphic Memoir






R is for Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue has been on my list for some time. I almost mandated it for my turn at book club in December, but then remembered I never mandate, always preferring to offer my fellow clubbers with a choice.

Thankfully, my BFF is in book club and loves to mandate. And that’s how this debut novel got promoted from the proverbial nightstand and into my hands via my beloved Kindle.

So an interesting thing happened when I started reading ROOM. I wasn’t loving it and I wasn’t immediately sure why. It’s narrated by 5 year old Jack, in the innocent, rambling, run-on sentence babbling, precocious ways of many kiddos. Donoghue had nailed the voice of her narrator and it was completely authentic.

Maybe too authentic.

After a full day of work and a few hours with my own innocent, rambling, run-on sentence babbling, precocious six year old, I sat down to read looking for escape and found myself a bit as trapped as Jack and his Ma, in a tiny little room. Confused?

If you don’t know about Room, that’s the deal. Jack and his Ma live in a single room. It’s the only life Jack has ever known. There is no outside, no parks or schools, friends or family. The only other person Jack knows of is Old Nick, the man that comes by from time to time to deliver food and highly anticipated Sunday treats. As Ma passes the time reading Jack the same 5 books, creating opportunities for physical education, math and creative time, I was wondering how she didn’t go completely insane.

But I had to forge on. If not for the fact that I had heard so many good things about Room, I had to finish it for book club.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I am not going to cover any other plot points… I will say, however, that I ended up enjoying Room. The second half was the clincher for me (even though I have heard several people say they liked the first half better, go figure). Donoghue has created extremely likable protagonists in Jack and Ma in a confining and harrowing environment. I also like that the outcome was a bit of what I expected and a fair amount of what I didn’t. Donoghue’s storytelling is compelling, engaging and different. She’s definitely someone I will keep an eye on in the future.

Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 336
Genre: Fiction