In the Garden of Beasts


In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

It was interesting enough that I didn’t give up on it, but certainly nowhere near as captivating as Larson’s other books, and quite boring given the subject matter of the rise of Nazi Germany. Larson’s other books show a real dexterity in juxtaposing historical events with individual evils going on in the same place at the same time (i.e., Chicago serial killer during the Chicago Worlds’ Fair in Devil in the White City). Perhaps he thought that the inherent evil of the Nazis was enough to sustain the book, and in theory, it should have been, but it was just…flat. At a certain point, I just couldn’t give a crap about how many lovers Martha took or whether Ambassador Dodd got to work on another chapter of his book glorifying the racist antebellum south. Oh well.
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book review: the immortal life of henrietta lacks


The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I had a few fits and starts since finishing my last book, attempting to read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi which I just could not get through (I don’t think it’s anything to do with the book so much as the fact that I think I’m burned out on the subject matter for the moment).

But I finally got a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks from the library, and, while it took me a few days to get into, I could not put it down. I mark my progress on goodreads, and when I opened the book this morning, I was on page 148. And then I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, ultimately finishing the 376-page book in one sitting (broken up only once by the fact that I had to change locations).

I’m still processing, but this book, despite a significant amount of scientific material and background, is incredibly gripping – Skloot interweaves the story of Henrietta’s “immortal cells” with the everyday plight of Henrietta and her family, as well as Skloot’s own, painstaking, years-long challenge in getting the Lacks family to trust her enough to let her write the book. As usual, I’m not going to go into too much detail on the actual details of the book (you can click the book title above to get a plethora of that type of information), but I will say that I was moved to tears at points in the story when I wouldn’t have expected to be. The combination of the Lacks’ family’s own dire circumstances and their (rightful) sense of an injustice having been done to their family, combined with their utter generosity at the end of the day is just something to behold. I highly recommend this.

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book review: the imperfectionists


The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Another novel that is essentially a series of short-story-esque vignettes about people who are connected to one another (like a visit from the goon squad), this time the employees and other assorted folks associated with a failing international newspaper based in Rome. The author worked for the International Herald Tribune before it died, so it’s obviously a subject close to his heart.

It took me a little while to get into the story, but once it got going (and I figured out how the timeline worked), I really enjoyed it. Each “modern day” story of an individual character is followed by a brief vignette from the history of the paper, from it’s founding, through it’s heyday, up until it’s decline and eventual shuttering. Very nicely woven together, with parts that made me incredibly sad and at least one part that had me laugh out loud in public when I was reading it. Definitely recommend.

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book review: port mortuary


Port Mortuary (Kay Scarpetta Series #18)Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell

Book 18 in Cornwell’s continuing saga of Kay Scarpetta. I’ve mentioned this before, but I started reading this series when it was one of the few available in the english-language section of the nearby bookstore while I was living in Milan. Since then, I’ve felt compelled to continue, even though, in literary terms, these are the written equivalent of CSI. I’m not sure what to make of this one. First, Cornwell goes back to the narrative first person, where the entire story is told in Scarpetta’s voice. She had moved away from this device in recent books, giving more of an omniscient reader perspective. Going back to knowing only what Scarpetta knows certainly helped hold the suspense longer. Unfortunately, this was because Scarpetta herself was largely outside of the loop for much of the book. Most of the “suspense” was dependent on Scarpetta’s friends and associates deliberately keeping information from her until the last minute (sure, they all had seemingly legitimate reasons, but those reasons disappeared as soon as it was convenient for Scarpetta to actually find something out). In any event, Scarpetta is basically dropped into the situation after everything has happened, becomes an incredibly unpleasant person for a few hours due to the fact that she hasn’t slept, becomes unreasonably suspicious of everyone, including her husband, and then solves the crime after pretty much everyone else has gotten there as well.

Not loving this one.

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book review: a visit from the goon squad


A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I gave this four out of five stars over at goodreads, but largely because I think the overhype of this book on a whole bunch of end-of-year-best-of lists increased my expectations to a (perhaps unrealistically) very high degree. But it was still a great read. A meditation on time, aging, the follies of both our youth and old age, on our ability to reinvent ourselves, sometimes over and over again. Told through a series of short stories, each in a different voice (including one powerpoint presentation), each focused on a different character, jumping as far back as the 1970s and as far forward as 2020-something, but all inextricably linked and culminating in a complete circle of interconnected lives. Really quite beautifully woven together.

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book review: all the devils are here


All the Devils Are HereAll the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean

A really in-depth look at all of the decisions and events that led to the 2008 financial crisis/collapse, from the internal workings at all of the major investment banks, the sub-prime lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the ratings agencies and AIG. No one (or very few people) actually committed “crimes”, but everyone kept pushing the envelope of what was appropriate within their given sphere, and each bad decision was compounded by the bad decisions of 100 other players. Each of these financial products (from the mortgages themselves to the securitization vehicles to the collateralized debt obligations to the credit-default-swaps to the synthetic CDOs), when first created, made perfect sense. But not necessarily when all thrown into the mix at the same time, each one feeding off of the other in a vicious cycle of lower and lower standards and more and more debt.

It’s hard to say who was the worst player in the bunch. Was it AIG, which essentially allowed the entire risk-management function to exist inside Hank Greenberg’s septuagenarian head? Or the ratings agencies, who kept giving all of these things triple-A ratings, which were supposed to mean that the investments were as “safe as treasury bonds”, even after they were well aware of the underlying problems? Or the investment banks who sidelined their own risk-managers because they didn’t turn a profit? Or the subprime lenders, who were handing out reams of money to people that they knew could never pay it back, even in a best-case scenario?

And of course, popular notions of “who’s to blame” are often not anywhere near the truth. Fannie and Freddie got a large share of the blame for causing the problem, but in actuality, they were very late to the party, and only ended up in the subprime market in the first place because they were required, by law, to guarantee a certain percentage of low-income housing. Because the subprime lenders were undercutting the more traditional “hard money” lenders that had previously serviced this market, Fannie and Freddie almost had no choice but to start buying up subprime loans. Of course, they didn’t take a step back and try to use their mighty lobbying power to get out of this obligation, or to highlight the problem, but it’s a very different scenario than the idea that they “caused” the entire mess.

Just amazing.

Not quite as “entertaining” as McLean’s prior book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, but then again, the collapse of our entire financial system was bound to be less entertaining than a bunch of guys in Houston who were just giant fraudsters, spending tens of thousands of dollars on everything from race cars to strippers.

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009/365: books


In November, I rearranged my living room. This involved moving my giant, heavy bookshelf, which in turn required me to remove all the books for the first time in several years.

As a consequence, I ended up with a pile of (mostly) mass market paperbacks that I really never planned on reading again and had no sentimental attachment to, so I decided to pack them up for Housing Works. And here they sit, because I never seem to remember to actually take them with me when I leave my apartment. And lest you think I’m entitled to avoid a big hassle, there’s a Housing Works shop two blocks away.

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003/365: end of an era


It was announced months ago, but today was the day that the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble officially went out of business. I was hoping to just get a picture of the “closed” sign in the window, but when I wandered down, they were dismantling the giant signage from the front of the store, so it seemed more fitting to get a shot of the disassembled giant letters.

I can’t even count the number of hours I’ve spent in the cafe and wandering the aisles of this store. Even after getting my nook, I still like to browse the physical bookstore to get ideas of what I’d like to read next, and I was in here at least 2-3 times a week.

Not to mention the fact that, after the closing of the Tower Records across the street a few years ago, this is the last place in the neighborhood that had a decent music department. Sad.

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book reviews: final roundup


I finished two more books before 2010 came to a close, and they were both part of the same series, so I’ll tackle them together.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The second and third books in the Hunger Games Trilogy, these books certainly lived up to their hype, although Catching Fire was a bit more engaging (only a bit!). Mockingjay seemed to take longer to get where it was going, and Katniss, the protagonist, spent much of that book essentially sitting on the sidelines – I understand why it was necessary for the story, and she had her own demons to wrestle with even away from the front lines, but the big, world-changing stuff essentially happened off-page until near the end.

But the end… really fantastic. I think my favorite part of all three of these books was that, despite being in the “young adult” category, Collins wasn’t afraid to show relationships as messy and complicated. It’s a nice change of pace from the “one true love that stands in the face of all challenges” that’s been presented to teenage girls in books like the twilight series and even Harry Potter.

My only regret is that there isn’t going to be a fourth novel. I suppose I’ll have to content myself with waiting for the inevitable movie (which I believe they’re already casting!).

Happy New Year everyone. My final reading tally for 2010 was 35 books. Not quite hitting the 50 book challenge target, but certainly more than I’ve ever read in a single year in my adulthood.

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book reviews: slacker edition


Since my last book review, I’ve read 4 books. But, between the holidays (and holiday-related travel) combined with my general weather-related ennui, I haven’t posted reviews of them. So, here’s a quick hit list of each of them. All of them were very good to excellent, but I’m already on to something new…

The War for Late NightThe War for Late Night by Bill Carter

I never read Carter’s first book about the Leno/Letterman brouhaha (and since it’s not available for my nook, won’t be for some time), but this makes me want to. A really engrossing look at the battle between Leno and Conan O’Brien, with some really neat history of the “other” late night hosts (Kimmel, Fallon), I couldn’t put it down. I have no love for Leno, and he comes off as a bit of a joke-spewing automaton, but the fact that the show, and performing stand-up is pretty much the ONLY thing he does should have clued network execs into the fact that he wasn’t just going to go gently into that goodnight once his contract was up. Not to mention the assumption that Conan would continue to be the perpetual whipping boy – willing to take whatever scraps the network gave him on the altar of “someday you’ll get to host the Tonight Show”. The person that comes off best is Fallon, who seems to have found the future of late night in DVRs and internet-friendly pieces. So much so that I’ve started DVRing his show since I read this book.

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games,  #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’m not ashamed to say that I loved this book, in all of it’s young adult glory. There’s a reason people are obsessed with it. From it’s proto-feminist kickass heroine, Katniss, to the horror of the dystopian future in which she lives, I was engrossed from beginning to end. I would also point out that I had resisted reading this for some time, until even the non-book-reading Stephen Thompson of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, which I adore to no end, began his “Stephen reads a book” project with this. That pushed me over the edge.

Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

There’s not a lot I can say about this book without spoiling it too badly – there are just too many secrets wrapped up in this tale of two southern men, one black and one white, one relatively successful and one a perpetual loser, who are tied together through a variety of tragic circumstances. Except that I was completely drawn in.

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1)The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro

And, of course, on a completely different note…I just finished this pretty gruesome vampire tale (part one of three) set in New York City, where vampirism is a viral infection, and the vampires are pretty horrific. Closer to zombies or the monsters in I Am Legend than the mysterious sexiness of our current vampire craze. I’m still not sure I get all of the conspiracy aspects – but those probably (I hope!) get fleshed out in the next two parts of the trilogy. That being said, once the action really got started, I couldn’t put it down, and read the last 100 or so pages in one sitting last night.

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