52 Books in 52 Weeks of 2010

Week 12: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care – T. R. Reid

It has been a monumental week, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on. This week, the President of the United States signed healthcare reform into law. Now, I am not here to debate arguments, the situation or the yet-to-be-seen outcomes. I think we can all agree that our system is not a perfect one and it’s one that could benefit from some form of redesign. So that’s what I took a look at this week, turning to a non-partisan, highly informative and tremendously fascinating book: THE HEALING OF AMERICA: THE GLOBAL QUEST FOR BETTER, CHEAPER, AND FAIRER HEALTH CARE by T.R. Reid.

Ried, a former Princeton graduate, naval officer, reporter having covered four presidential campaigns and chief of the Washington Post’s Tokyo and London bureaus is taking on the U.S. healthcare system and attempting to find solutions–by looking at the World Health Organization’s top-ranked countries for health care (we aren’t one of them). He hits the road with his bum shoulder and the knowledge that we have the highest percentage of deaths that are cureable with medical intervention and some 22,000 Americans die annually due to lack of medical coverage. How will treatment and cost differ between the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada, and what best and worst practices will he identify in the process?


I found the individual country case studies fascinating. France has successfully converted to a completely digitized medical record all contained on a microchip that is affixed to a credit-card sized piece of plastic (a system, ironically enough, that was created by Americans). Preventive care is the focus of many of our European counterparts. Japanese citizens have access to over 2,000 health plans and can see a specialist immediately – often without an appointment.

Now, I am touting the pluses; but Reid goes into an objective analysis showing the successes and failures of each country’s system. He speaks to top health officials, health reformers and providers along the way creating a full picture of how other comparable nations are managing and providing health care. He breaks down a number of different models (of which the U.S. uses a little bit of every kind), myths (it’s not all socialized medicine outside of our contiguous 50 states) and realities (we are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t hold health care as a basic right for all its citizens).

Reid’s research found that American’s aren’t cold hearted. When polled, the vast majority are in favor of everyone having access to health care and think that most do. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of Americans who are uninsured, underinsured and unable to obtain health care. There is so much we can learn when looking at how others not just provide health care, but finance its delivery. There is tremendous opportunity to arm ourselves with information and knowledge to understand what we really have available and use that information to create a better, cheaper and fairer system.

I think Reid’s book is one tool to do just that.

Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 288

Week 11: She Got Up Off the Couch – Haven Kimmel

I read Kimmel’s first memoir, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana during one of my annual girls’ trips to Mexico a couple years back. While taking in the sun, tasty margaritas and enjoying the simple things, I was enamored with this quirky small-town girl and her cleverly down-home way with words. She made childhood in a town of just 300 (THAT’S small!) a bit romantic. Living where everyone knows your name (forget that they all know your business, too) and where life seems less complicated or harried than that of the big city. I found her book utterly delightful, as did the friends with whom I shared it.

After that first book, Kimmel’s mother, Delonda, became as popular or intriguing as Zippy herself. One to sit firmly planted on the family couch, surrounded by books or knitting, Delonda did nothing much more than that – parenting from old, upholstered sofa cushions. Kimmel was repeatedly asked, “So did your mother ever get up off the couch?” And, so, a follow up was born.


SHE GOT UP OFF THE COUCH is really a story of Delonda Jarvis and her transformation from couch potato to college graduate at 40 (much to her husband’s disbelief), told from Zippy’s childhood perspective. It covers a time of significant change in the Jarvis household, when Zippy’s beloved brother marries and moves away, her sister starts her own family, and Delonda steps out of her comfort zone to go after her own dreams. It’s a time when Zippy begins to see her parents no longer as superheroes, but human and just as capable of achieving greatness as they are of falling from it.


Kimmel weaves her stories with both compassion and humor that left me laughing out loud and pausing for reflection. One of my favorite passages involved Delonda’s recent acquaintance with a foul-mouthed friend, “Big Fat Bonnie” a woman who would play a small but significant part in Delonda’s newfound independence:
“Well, I’ll be &*@! if I can’t teach you how to drive, and I will, too, you can bet your &*@!” Bonnie was saying. “No man would keep ME from driving a car, forget it! What is this, a Turkish prison? What do you do all day, just sit around watching the %*#^TV?!”
 
Mom blushed, but also looked a bit sheepish, then noticed me. “Bonnie, this is my daughter.”
 
I just continued to stand frozen in the doorway. I wanted to raise my hand and wave, but I was afraid I’d break the spell and miss a whole stream of good swears.
It’s clear that Kimmel has immense respect for her mother and the journey she took off the couch and into the classroom. Following her dreams, however late in life she did, largely influenced Kimmel herself to go after her own as a writer. Interestingly enough, her memoirs were never intended to be published, just documentation of her family for her family.


Fortunately, she too did what may not have been expected of her and shared them with all of us.



Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 336

Week 10: A Three Dog Life – Abigail Thomas

I scooped up several copies of Abigail Thomas’ memoir, A THREE DOG LIFE, after hearing her read at a local, indepdendent bookseller a couple of years ago. The seal of approval on the cover by Steven King noting it as “The best memoir I have ever read.” was certainly intriguing, but I was more taken by her and the glimpse she gave us into her life.

Simply told, in April 2001, Thomas’ husband Rich took their dog Harry for a walk and was hit by a car. The accident shattered his skull and the life that he and Abigail once shared. Not so simple was the reality of what would happen next. All were left traumatized by the event that permanently altered Rich, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury and a sketchy recollection of the world he once inhabited.

Thomas’ memoir is a love letter to her husband and the one, then two, then three dogs that ultimately helped her through the emotionally painful and unpredictable moments that followed Rich’s accident. She imparts so many lessons learned on the value of living in the moment, appreciating what you have right now, and wasting no time worrying about the future.

That’s not to say her road to these realizations was an easy one. Thomas regularly struggled with guilt about what happened and her husband’s eventual placement in a skilled facility that could better manage his volatile emotional state and physical limitations than she ever could.

Her writing is simple without being simplistic, authentic and just plain good. One of my favorite passages is when she realizes that life can go on and she can even expereince moments of joy and happiness:

If only life were more like this, you will think, as you and the dogs traipse up to bed, and you realize with a start that this is life.”

I was certain this book could have the possibility of wrecking me, sucker punching me when I least expected it, or even when I did. Thomas’ story is such a tragic one, but one that is offset by her sheer commitment to her husband and herself. It’s so beautifully told that I actually came away not with feelings of sadness but admiration for her, her perspective and her expertly and seemingly effortlessly crafted words.

Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 208

Week 9: The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Week 9 was finished just time with Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age memoir, THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS, about growing up in Iran in the early 80s, at the height of social change, opression and war. What’s unique about her story, aside from the fact her story is in itself very unique, is the medium through which it’s told–graphically.

A graphic novel was a first for me. My knowledge of graphic novels was limited and had me thinking of superhero stories geared at teenaged boys. Never would I have guessed that the same technique could so effectively tell a story of a young girl navigating her way through a world where freedoms are being stripped from everyone and newer, harsher rules are being placed on Iranian women, simply because they are women. Satrapi was a rebellious, spitfire of a young woman. Raised by parents who questioned the world around them and bucked convention, they helped raise a woman who did the same, all the while respecting herself and others in the process. But the world they live in, under conservative and opressive religious fanatacism, proves to be too much, Satrapi’s family must decide whether the teenaged Marjane should stay in Iran or continue her education in another country.

In addition to telling a compelling story, Satrapi is a talented graphic artist. Her “comic book” drawings were exceptional and able to convey the moments of fear, anger, sadness and true happiness that she, her family and her friends felt and, in turn, I felt when reading it. Her personal story resulted in the making of a motion picture that has garnered much critical acclaim, and one I am looking forward to adding to my Netflix queue. I am also looking forward to another turn at this emerging genre.

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 352

Week 8: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

I’ve had a secret: This week’s book was actually attempted last week and I made an executive decision to put it down and hold until another time, a less busy week, a week when I would have more time to devote to what I could tell was going to be a wild ride of a book.

I’ve got a another secret: It won’t do you any good to save this book until you have several days available to read. You will need a nice solid block of time because once you dig in, you won’t be able to put it down. The dishes, facebook, e-mail and maybe even meals will have to wait.

Okay, so maybe those weren’t the bombshells you were expecting. I will leave the juiciest secrets to the masters, the late Stieg Larsson being one of them. A former Swedish journalist, Larsson wrote three unpublished books–the first being THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (TGWTDT), before his untimely death of a massive heat attack at age 50 in 2004. According to sources at wikipedia.org, Larsson had no intent of publishing the books, it was how he filled is leisure time at the end of the day serving as editor-in-chief of Sweden’s Expo magazine.

Thankfully, the books were published and readers can experience the page turning exhilaration of an expertly crafted thriller. TGWTDT centers around a disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is hired by wealthy industrial mogul Henrik Vanger to investigate the decades-old disappearance of beloved family member Harriet Vanger. Out of work, for reasons you will learn when you read the book, Blomkvist reluctantly takes on Vanger’s obsession with no real thought that he would discover anything new that trained professionals hadn’t unearthed over the years.

But that’s where he’s wrong.

Quickly, Blomkvist finds himself mired in the details of the contentious Vanger family history; a history that when further researched turns up far more questions than answers. It seems as though the mystery will never be resolved. Further complicating matters is the young, heavily tattoed researcher with multiple piercings he’s forced to partner with to decode the secrets, all the while maintaining a host of her own.

Larsson’s work strikes all the right notes of a perfect freaky-deaky-ultra-creepy thriller and he kept me guessing up until the end. In creating two lead characters that so effectively work together, despite their glaring differences, he’s also elicited enough intrigue to make me want to pick up his subsequent novels involving Blomkvist and the curious girl with the dragon tattoo: THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and the soon-to-be-released THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST.

Perhaps you’ll do the same.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 480 pages
Genre: Thriller

Week 7: August: Osage County – Tracy Letts

[blockquote]”I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I intended to be.” Douglas Adams[/blockquote]

Week 7 started out very strong. With the President’s Day holiday on Monday, I got a solid start on this week’s book. However, it quickly got blown out of the water with the busy-ness of life and work. Complicating matters was that by Thursday night, I knew there was no way I could possibly finish the 360+ pages I still had to read (and that was with my having already knocked out 130 pages). Furthermore, I was enjoying this book so much that I didn’t want to jam it into two days–too reminiscent of the college cram and not the goal of this project at all.

 

So I made an executive decision: I put the book on hold so that I could keep reading it at an enjoyable pace at a later date, and so I picked up something smaller. More to come on the on-hold book in a future post.

 

The something smaller book was an amazon.com recommendation that was a slim and interesting 240 pages that I was certain I could read in a couple of days.

 

WRONG.

 

There’s something very special about the amazon-recommended book that I had downloaded in just a few moments to my Kindle. It was also one that needed time for focused reading and reflection.

 

CRAP.

 

This challenge is not getting the best of me in week 7!

 

Executive decision number 2: I scanned my bookshelves and picked up an even smaller book (a play, actually) August: Osage County by Tracy Letts.

 

Letts is the son of novelist Billie Letts (Where the Heart is and The Honk and Holler Opening Soon) and a native of Oklahoma. His play, which in addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ran on Broadway from 2007-2009 and picked up a Tony in the process.

 

I haven’t read a play since my high school acting days; and never before have I read a play like this. Letts pulls together in three acts a multi-layered tragicomedy with dialogue that is so spot on I felt like I was overhearing a real-life conversation unfolding. The play centers around the Westons, a family forced back together by the death of one of their own. As is common with these types of reunions, when families have been separated for some time, old wounds are opened and new ones form as the family struggles with funeral arrangements and the getting on of getting on. It’s like family dysfunction on overdrive and Letts deftly balances the awkward silences and vicious verbal spars with moments of comic relief and clarity that propel both the story and the reader forward.

 

This was another gift from my folks, and having been signed by the playwright himself it’s a bit extra special. I never would have heard of this or thought to pick it up, but his talents are obvious and his words worth reading. Especially after two extremely worthy but ultimately false starts that will have to join this reading challenge later in the process.


Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 138
Genre: Play

Week 6: Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

Dysfunction, junction… this collection’s a malfunction.

Last week, Mr. I don’t-want-to-be-famous-so-I-am-going-into-hiding-and-this-will-actually-make-me-even-more-famous J.D. Salinger, passed away. At 91, and with just three notable works, he became an American icon of the literary landscape. My project partner in crime Deejah and I decided to honor his passing by reading FRANNY AND ZOOEY, which–surprisingly–neither of us had read.

I will start by saying that I am so thankful my first exposure to Salinger was The Catcher in the Rye. I absolutely loved the angst-ridden, mentally unhealthy Holden Caulfield. It seemed ahead of its time even at the time that I read it.

While Salinger keeps with some familiar themes and territory in these stories, their execution falls nothing short of disastrous. The title characters are the youngest of Salinger’s fictional Glass family. The Glass children, 7 or 9 in total (I honestly don’t remember), grew up in the spotlight while having appeared multiple times on a television quiz show. Now adults, Franny is on leave from college suffering a nervous breakdown and her brother Zooey is… how can I put this? An asshole. Oh yes, they have suffered the ills of growing up in the limelight and the loss of their oldest sibling Seymour (by his own hand), but I am not sure what the reader is supposed to take away from these two stories.

Immediately it felt like I had walked in on on a behind-closed-door conversation that was not juicy, but boringly cringe-worthy. The dialogue is long and the characters long-winded. It came across as overtly pretentious and I just really didn’t care about these indivuduals. Franny is a blubbering mess and Zooey spends the bulk of his story insulting everyone around him in a callous and arrogant manner. I found nothing redeeming about this book except for its slender size and the reality that I could quickly move on to something more enjoyable.

Rating: 1 star
Pages: 201
Genre: Fiction, short stories

Week 5: Tepper Isn’t Going Out – Calvin Trillin

Within just the first few pages of reading TEPPER ISN’T GOING OUT, I knew I was in for a pleasant ride (or perhaps I should say stay). Calvin Trillin’s slim story is a humorous tale of one Maury Tepper and his quest to find a perfectly good “legal spot” and park his Chevy Malibu to enjoy a read of the New York Post. His simple act to steal some quiet time puts the city in an absolute tailspin. Consipiracy theories abound as to why a middle-aged man would take to reading in his car versus an easy chair.

The behavior befuddles his wife Ruth and their daughter Linda. His business partner and friends are certain something must be wrong. And rather funny things start to happen when strangers begin to notice the man in the parked car. Of course he gets his share of “Ya bastard, ya! That’s a perfectly good spot!”–it’s New York. But Tepper also gains a following of strong supporters, which he’ll need when his story hits the desk of the city’s tyrannical mayor and even makes the very newspaper he parks to read.


What the plot lacks in depth, it more than makes up in great humor and solid writing. It’s just a perfect read for a perfect day when you have found yourself the perfect spot to park yourself–wherever that may be.


Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 213
Genre: Fiction

Week 4: The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse – Louise Erdrich

This week’s entry was picked for me as my February Book Club’s selection. Admittedly, it actually took me two weeks to read it, but finishing it up this week, I am counting it now. For those that know me well, I considered heavily (probably too much) if I should count this or not since I didn’t read this in an actual week and then I was quickly reminded that I had many more mundane things I could be fretting over and moved on.

So this is my third Erdrich undertaking, the first being The Master Butchers Singing Club (a literary marvel and masterpiece and all that good stuff that comes when you read something remarkable). Second, I tackled her first novel, Love Medicine, and fumbled big-time. I couldn’t get through it. The third and most current is THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE, which falls somewhere between the two. And, just so you know, here on out I will refer to it as LITTLE NO HORSE because the title, while wonderful is just too much to type and I have too many acronyms I have to deal with in my 8-5 job, so TLROTMALNH was a headache-inducing proposition and so quickly off the blog posting page it falls.

All of my Erdrich readings have been due to my book club and I am not sure I would have picked her up otherwise. I love, love, LOVED The Master Butchers Singing Club and went into LITTLE NO HORSE with much anticipation, it being a National Book Award finalist and all. But unfortunately, the love affair faded rather quickly.

There is no doubt that Erdrich has crafted a truly unique story with LITTLE NO HORSE. She’s an extremely talented writer. To create a full community of feuding Ojibwe Indian families, their difficult life on desolate land and their desire for counsel and guidance from a dedicated priest (Father Modeste) is an achievement. She crafts a story of major transgressions, dark violence and closely held secrets. One where thought I would be quick to turn the page and slow to put down, but that wasn’t the case. Certainly, there were moments that were pretty spectacular and then there were more times than I expected that I found the book to drag on and, dare I say it?, where I was a little bit bored.

This is not a book to consume quickly. It takes a bit of time, focus and quiet. The sentence structure is long, the list of characters complex and, at times, it’s hard to follow. At least, that was my experience. And I don’t officially award books with prestigious honors or even seals; so who am I to say? I just read some of them and write about them on this little blog that a small contention of folks follow. So at the end of the day read it at your own risk and decide for yourself. And if you do that, let me know what you think.

Rating: 2 stars
Pages: 361
Genre: Fiction

Week 3: Ballistics: Poems – Billy Collins

I have often shied away from poetry. In all my love of literature, it has always seemed like the better educated sibling with whom I really couldn’t converse. While poetry would expound upon themes and metaphors, illusions and allusions, I would be wondering if anyone would jump in and be able to talk about the latest episode of the newest popular TV show, saving me from embarrassment and, ultimately, engaging me in something more my speed. In other words, smart as I think am, I didn’t always feel like I was in poetry’s league.

And then I was introduced to Billy Collins.

I don’t want you to think that he’s poetry’s younger, dumber sister; because he’s not. Having held the position of Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and the New York State Poet in 2004, he’s quite the opposite. What he is, and what for so long poetry hasn’t been for me, is accessible. He writes about every day experiences and situations and weaves in glints of humor, sadness and reality that fit as comfortably as a pair of well-worn jeans.

My first exposure was several years ago to his collection, Nine Horses, which I found absolutely delightful. Charming, even.

After becoming a parent, I listened to him read his famous poem, The Lanyard (listen to it now – you won’t be sorry), and I connected with it in a way I haven’t been able to with other poems (let alone novels).

And now I pick up BALLISTICS, his latest collection sent to me by my dad and step mom a few months ago. It was the perfect read during a very rainy and reflective week. Several of the poems brought a curl to my lip where others forced me to close my eyes and savor the words just a little bit longer before turning the page and moving on. I have some clear favorites from this collection and some that I wasn’t as able to connect with, and that’s okay. There’s something about his poems that not only feel accessible, but personal. I think that his poems will resonate differently with different people in their various places and stages of life.

I am certainly not one to find myself in deep dialogue with others about poetry, its history, construction, relevance or whatever people talk about when they talk about poetry; but with Billy Collins I feel like I can finally contribute to the conversation. Even if he is one of only a handful of poets I can actually reference.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 128
Genre: Poetry