Running from the Law: Summer Reading List

Monday, September 21, 2009

Summer Reading List

Can you believe it’s already the last day of summer? Where did it go?!

A few months ago, in an attempt to get through the piles of unread books in my office, I set myself a little goal to read 10 books this summer. Being the over-achiever that I am, I got through 15 (not bad considering all the trips, events and activities we had this summer...not to mention planning a wedding). I tried to read of mix of fiction and non-fiction on a variety of topics, although as it usually happens, sometimes I get on a kick and read a lot about a particular subject – this time it was Nazi Germany and WWII. Most books were pretty good, although a few of them could have been better. Some made me laugh, a few made me cry, one nearly bored me to tears and one gave me nightmares for over a month. Here is a quick summary/review of the books (all from unless otherwise mentioned and abbreviated by me) and a few of my thoughts on them.

1. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Amazon – Michael Berg, 15, is on his way home from high school in post-World War II Germany when he becomes ill and is befriended by a woman who takes him home. When he recovers weeks later, he dutifully takes the 40-year-old Hanna flowers in appreciation, and the two become lovers. Meetings take on a more meaningful routine in which after lovemaking Michael reads aloud from the German classics. The boy knows nothing of Hanna’s life other than that she collects tickets on the streetcar, and is only too willing to overlook Hanna's dark secrets. She leaves the city abruptly and mysteriously, and he does not see her again until, as a law student, he sits in on her case when she is being tried as a Nazi criminal.

Me – It was ok. A little creepy and a little slow, but well-written. Interesting to read about the after-math and ethical consequences of people post-war. The "big surprise" of the book was really predictable, but it was touching. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version with Kate Winslett (who I adore), which I heard was way better than the book.

2. The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits

Amazon – On November 7, 1985, Mary Veal, 16, an upper-middle-class girl, disappears from New England's Semmering Academy. A month later she reappears, claiming amnesia, but hinting at abduction and ravishment. The events in the novel take place on three levels: one, dedicated to "what might have happened," is the story of the supposedly blank interval; another is dedicated to the inevitable therapeutic aftermath, as Mary's therapist, Dr. Hammer, tries to discover whether Mary is lying, either about the abduction or the amnesia; and the present of the novel, which revolves around the funeral of Mary's mother, Paula, in 1999. This structure delicately balances between gothic and comic, allowing Julavits to play variations on Mary's life and on the '80s moral panic of repressed memory syndromes and wild fears of child abuse.

Me – I really didn’t like this book and found myself wishing it was over from the first chapter. I dreaded picking it up but kept thinking that it HAD to get better, right? Not so much. The characters are incredibly hard to like, the whole thing is confusing, the narrations are so inconsistent and the author’s complete lack of using quotation marks was exhausting.

3. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

Wikipedia – This international bestselling book by Thomas L. Friedman analyzes globalization, primarily in the early 21st century. The title is a metaphor for viewing the world as a level playing field in terms of commerce, where all competitors have an equal opportunity. As the first edition cover illustration indicates, the title also alludes to the perceptual shift required for countries, companies and individuals to remain competitive in a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Me – Bored to tears during this book. Ugh. Terrible. Maybe I'm just not moved my economic theories.

4. The Tricky Part : A Boy's Story of Sexual Trespass, a Man's Journey to Forgiveness by Martin Moran

Amazon – To everyone else in the Denver neighborhood where he grew up in the '70s, Moran was a studious Catholic boy. No one knew he carried a secret that would fester for 30 years and lead to extreme anxiety, sexual compulsion and suicide attempts. At age 12 he met Bob, a church camp counselor in his 30s who, for several years, took Moran hiking and camping, and had sex with him. Moran painfully recounts the inner workings of a lonely, insecure adolescent who, out of a desperate need for friendship and acceptance, continued a sexual relationship with a man 20 years his senior. Feeling guilty and shameful regarding the affair and his homosexuality, Moran lived a life in which the erotic and the illicit fused, and compulsive sex became a means of self-punishment. Over the years, Moran, now a writer and actor, managed to glean bits of guidance and self-acceptance from his aunt, a contemplative nun; a New Age music teacher; friends; and eventually, recovery groups and therapy.

Me – This was a disturbing one. This book is so graphic and honest it was hard to pick up and hard to put down. I was a little skeptical about how truly religious and Catholic a young kid could be (as a kid I could barely sit through church without screaming), but it drives home a point about conflict and guilt. It’s definitely not a happy book (nor is it light reading), but it was interesting and yet somewhat hopeful.

5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Amazon – A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far. The novel has a keen understanding of the intricacies of marital and parental relationships as well as a narrative pace that is both compelling and thoughtful. Eva Khatchadourian is a smart, skeptical New Yorker whose impulsive marriage to conventional Franklin, bears baby Kevin. From the start Eva is ambivalent about him, never sure if she really wanted a child, and he is balefully hostile toward her; only good-old-boy Franklin, hoping for the best, manages to overlook his son's faults as he grows older, a largely silent, cynical, often malevolent child. The narrative, which leads with quickening and horrifying inevitability to the moment when Kevin massacres seven of his schoolmates and a teacher at his upstate New York high school, is told as a series of letters from Eva to an estranged Franklin, after Kevin has been put in prison. It's a harrowing, psychologically astute, sometimes even darkly humorous novel, with a clear-eyed, hard-won ending and a tough-minded sense of the difficult, often painful human enterprise.

Me – I have never been so disturbed by a book in my entire life. I had an incredibly hard time getting through this book because it was so upsetting to me. I had to stop reading it before bed because I’d have nightmares and I couldn't sleep. At one point I was so horrified I hid the book because I didn't even want to look at it. It completely quashed any “baby fever” I was feeling. The ending nearly killed me. So hard to get through. Very well-written and thought-provoking, but consider yourself warned. **Note: the author does not have any children...I'm hoping she just doesn't have a clue. I mean, really? Are kids actually born evil?

6. The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult

Amazon – Comic book artist Daniel Stone is like the character in his graphic novel with the same title as this book—once a violent youth and the only white boy in an Alaskan Inuit village, now a loving, stay-at-home dad in Bethel, Maine—traveling figuratively through Dante's circles of hell to save his 14-year-old teenage daughter, Trixie. After she accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, Trixie—and Daniel, whose fierce father-love morphs to murderous rage toward her assailant—unravel in the aftermath of the allegation. At the same time, wife and mother Laura, a Dante scholar, tries to mend her and Daniel's marriage after ending her affair with one of her students. This story of a flawed family on the brink of destruction grips from start to finish.

Me – Not one of Jodi’s best books. I did not like it. The only other book by her that I've read is "My Sister's Keeper," which I thought was pretty great. I had a hard time relating to the characters in this book and basically hated them all (even the poor little confused daughter). The mixing in of all the Dante references and the comic book stuff just seemed bizarre and overdone. Plus, some of the events of the book just seemed unbelievable and too cliché.

7. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Amazon – De Rosnay's U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand's family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: the parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah—the more she uncovers about Bertrand's family, about France and, finally, herself.

Me – I loved the history about the ware and the background story of Sarah's family in the book, but hated the contemporary story about the journalist that went along with it. I wish more of the story would have been from Sarah’s point of view. That being said, I read the whole thing in 1 day!

8. Everything is Illuminated by by Jonathan Safran Foer

Amazon – A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a 'blind' old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive - a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down.

Me – The main story in the book is wonderful. I loved the characters, especially the Ukrainian narrator, who is so offensive and overly confident it’s hilarious. I could barely get though some of the pages because I was in tears from laughing so hard. I did not like the interspersed account of life in the shtetl before the Nazis destroyed it. I thought these sections were boring and difficult to get through. I watched the movie a few weeks ago and it's pretty wonderful.

9. The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World by Kati Marton

Amazon – Among the Hungarian Jews who made their way to England and America as Hitler rose to power were four scientists, two filmmakers, two photographers, and a writer. These men, products of the same few Gymnasien and cafes, delivered the Manhattan Project, game theory, and "Casablanca." Seeing how abruptly the world could change, the Hungarians didn't doubt that they could change it. They also stuck together; even Leo Szilard, who crusaded against the bombs that he made possible, and Edward Teller, who sold Reagan on missile defense, stayed friends. By looking at these nine lives - salvaged, and crucial - Marton provides a moving measure of how much was lost.

Me – At first I was incredibly disappointed that this book was not about “escaping” literally. I pictured stories of climbing fences of concentration camps and devious plots to out-smart Hitler. Nope, not so much. Instead it’s about the lives of 9 Hungarians that all left Hungary before/during the war and went on to do some amazing things, elsewhere. I actually learned a lot from this book and found the connections, the relevance, the importance, the facts and lives of these men really fascinating. Confusing and slow at times, but a very interesting read...if you can get through it.

10. Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet

Amazon – This unique first-person account offers a window into the mind of a high-functioning, 27-year-old British autistic savant with Asperger's syndrome. Tammet's ability to think abstractly, deviate from routine, and empathize, interact and communicate with others is impaired, yet he's capable of incredible feats of memorization and mental calculation. Besides being able to effortlessly multiply and divide huge sums in his head with the speed and accuracy of a computer, Tammet learned Icelandic in a single week and recited the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. He experiences synesthesia, an unusual neurological syndrome that enables him to experience numbers and words as "shapes, colors, textures and motions." Tammet traces his life from a frustrating, withdrawn childhood and adolescence to his adult achievements, which include teaching in Lithuania, achieving financial independence with an educational Web site and sustaining a long-term romantic relationship. As one of only about 50 people living today with synesthesia and autism, Tammet's condition is intriguing to researchers; his ability to express himself clearly and with a surprisingly engaging tone (given his symptoms) makes for an account that will intrigue others as well.

Me – This was a really interesting book. I loved the way he described numbers and days with colors and shapes and feelings. I’m amazed at how well he communicates with his readers and can describe his symptoms, fears, talents, inabilities, gifts and difficulties. I've been interested in this subject since volunteering at Edgewood and now I want to read more on Asperger’s and autism.

11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Amazon – The brilliant, breathtaking conclusion to J.K. Rowling's spellbinding series is not for the faint of heart--such revelations, battles, and betrayals await in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that no fan will make it to the end unscathed. Luckily, Rowling has prepped loyal readers for the end by doling out increasingly dark and dangerous tales of magic and mystery, shot through with lessons about honor and contempt, love and loss, and right and wrong. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an odyssey the likes of which Rowling's fans have not yet seen, and are not likely to forget. The journey is hard, filled with events both tragic and triumphant, the battlefield littered with the bodies of the dearest and despised, but the final chapter is as brilliant and blinding as a phoenix's flame, and fans and skeptics alike will emerge from the confines of the story with full but heavy hearts, giddy and grateful for the experience.

Me – Loved it...again. This is the 3rd time I've read it.

12. Eclipse (The Twilight Saga – Book 3) by Stephanie Meyer

Amazon – Jake, the werewolf met in New Moon, pursues Bella with renewed vigilance. However, when repercussions from an episode in Twilight place Bella in the mortal danger that series fans have come to expect, Jake and Edward forge an uneasy alliance. The supernatural elements accentuate the ordinary human dramas of growing up. Jake and Edward's competition for Bella increases, with their apparent desire to best each other as much as to win Bella. Once again the author presents teenage love as an almost inhuman force.

Me – I don’t know why I (along with millions of other people) find these books so great. They’re not well-written. I don’t particularly like the characters. I find the love story so ridiculous. And yet, I can’t stop reading them!

13. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

Amazon – This debut essay collection is full of sardonic wit and charm, and Crosley effortlessly transforms what could have been stereotypical tales of mid-20s life into a breezy series of vignettes with uproariously unpredictable outcomes. From the opening The Pony Problem to the hilarious Bring-Your-Machete-to-Work Day (which will ring true for any child of the early 1990s who played the first Oregon Trail computer game), Crosley is equal parts self-deprecating and endearing as she recounts her secret obsession with plastic ponies and the joys of exacting revenge via a pixilated wagon ride. In less capable hands, the subjects tackled—from unpleasant weddings of long-forgotten friends to horrendous first jobs—could have been a litany of complaints from yet another rich girl from the suburbs. But Crosley, who grew up in Westchester and currently lives in Manhattan, makes the experiences her own with a plethora of amusing twists: a volunteer job at the American Museum of Natural History leads to a moral quandary, and a simple Upper West Side move becomes anything but.

Me – A friend recommended this and told me it was the most hilarious book she’d ever read. I was incredibly disappointed. I just don’t think I “got” the author or meshed with her sense of humor. It wasn’t that funny! Oh well.

14. Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello

Amazon – A funny, whip-smart memoir sure to be a sensation among Vogue and W devotees. After a surprising (even to the author) trans-Atlantic move from Provincetown, R.I. to Barcelona, where he knows no one and doesn't speak the language, Tonello's initial euphoria dissolves when his new job fails to materialize. To stay afloat, Tonello starts selling items on Ebay with startling results: his first, heart-racing success, a year-old $99 Polo scarf he sold for $430 to a Midwesterner ("I guess he really liked plaid") makes Tonello an instant believer in the resale capabilities of high-end luxury items. Thus his new trade, and his quest for the Birkin, the "it bag" of all time, famous for its impenetrable years-long waiting list. After many failed attempts, Tonello plans a weekend drive to Madrid in search of the haute couture holy grail; the result is a both a hilarious raid on fashion's strongholds and a memoir that satisfies like a novel.

Me – This is a light and fun read – definitely not serious literature (and not all that well-written) but entertaining and easy. It was interesting to hear about how the author becomes an Ebay guru and deals with the most desirable handbags in the world. It’s also kind of a scathing expose of Hermes' business practices and people’s obsession to have such a status symbol. I want one SO BAD.

15. Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Amazon – With precisely 35 canvases to his credit, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer represents one of the great enigmas of 17th-century art. His portrait of the anonymous Girl with a Pearl Earring has exerted a particular fascination for centuries--and it is this magnetic painting that lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier's second novel of the same title. The book centers on Vermeer's prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel's quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant--and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. Chevalier vividly evokes the complex domestic tensions of the household, ruled over by the painter's jealous, eternally pregnant wife and his taciturn mother-in-law. At times the relationship between servant and master seems a little anachronistic. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring does contain a final delicious twist.

Me – Overall, I thought it was a pretty good book – nothing extraordinary, but not bad. The plot is a little slow at times but sets up an interesting account of the way things “might” have happened. The characters aren’t fully believable and feel pretty generalized, but I think that’s what the author was trying to do.

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