Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: The King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts

If you're a fan of the detective/PI-typed mystery, I highly recommend that you read Tyler Dilts' The King of Infinite Space. If you follow my book reviews, you know this is a genre I tend to read a lot of, so I'm pretty particular about this type of book. And after reading the entire book in a day (thanks, insomnia) I am shocked that this is Dilts' first book.

Beth Williams, an English teacher, is brutally murdered one night in her classroom. Long Beach Detective Danny Beckett and his partner, Jen Tanaka, begin investigating the crime that doesn't seem to have any suspects, until suddenly, a number of possible murderers materializes. Beckett and Tanaka try to figure out what happened to Beth while Beckett is struggling with his own personal demons, and Tanaka is trying to keep one of her martial arts students on the straight and narrow, which isn't proving too easy.

I really enjoyed the main characters in this book. The dialogue seemed authentic; sometimes books try to throw too many police procedural terms into the mix to prove their authenticity but wind up seeming fake. I worried that Beckett's personal issues might prove too overwhelming for the plot, but they served as an intriguing counterpoint to the action, and deepened the dimensions of the character. While ultimately I figured out who done it, it was tremendously interesting the way the discovery of the murderer unfolded. I hope Dilts intends to write more books, especially those featuring Beckett and Tanaka. Seriously, read this book.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Talking Change When You Don't Want to Change...

Today, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, conservative commentator Glenn Beck held his "Restore Honor" rally in front of tens of thousands of people from around the country. It was lost on no one that Beck's rally was held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, given on the same steps; in fact, Beck, former governor Sarah Palin and other speakers repeatedly invoked King's name and legacy during the rally.

My political bias and general dislike of Beck and Palin aside, many things troubled me about this rally. For one, King's speech talked about setting aside racial differences and uniting for a common cause. Beck and Palin, addressing a predominantly white crowd, mentioned that the US was in danger of "turning into Mexico." Rally participants distributed pamphlets that depicted President Obama with Hitler's mustache and wore shirts that said "Treat Obama like a used teabag; dump him now!" One can only wonder whether such a rally would have been held had anyone other than the nation's first African-American president been in office.

Another thing Beck spoke of is the need to "restore traditional American values." We hear this a lot from conservatives. But of course, these traditional American values—where Christianity is valued above other religions, where people can get married and divorced and married and divorced but same-sex marriage destroys the "sanctity" of marriage, where "patriotism" is valued only when personal civil rights are trampled—only benefit those who espouse them. They don't actually uphold those values. After all, Beck called President Obama a "terrorist," and Palin likes to create her own version of reality to suit her purposes.

And the third worrisome thing about this rally is what Beck called "America today begin[ning] to turn back to God." One supporter chanted to a heckler "Go to church. Restore America with peace." So whose God are we speaking of? I'm fairly certain that a person like me wouldn't be welcomed into this group unless I renounced who I was.

So should I just move to Canada now?

This world, especially the world of politics, is governed by the philosophy of "do as I say, don't do as I do." And while the hypocrisy is alternately troubling and amusing most of the time, I am frightened by the once-again-growing conservativism of this country. I know that our nation was built on the idea of freedom for all, but I believe people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin would like to amend that philosophy, and offer freedom for those who believe what they believe and act as they say you should. Daring to be different doesn't deserve the same rights. And to me, that's not restoring honor. That's building a nation on fear, ignorance and prejudice.

Not the same idea that our founding fathers had in mind.

Book Review: "Labor Day" by Joyce Maynard

It's Labor Day weekend in the small town of Holton Mills, NH. Thirteen-year-old Henry lives a fairly solitary existence with his divorced mother, Adele, a former dancer who has retreated further and further into herself over the years. Henry knows his mother is unhappy and unlike other mothers (she usually waits in the car and sends Henry to do her errands, she eschews friends and a job) but refuses to tear her down to his father and stepmother.

And one day everything changes. While at a store, Henry is approached by Frank, an escaped convict. Frank is bleeding and in pain, and asks Henry if he can get a ride with him and his mother. Adele doesn't think twice about helping Frank, and gladly allows him to take control of the situation, even letting him stay with them. Frank acts as a pseudo father figure to Henry, teaching him how to catch a baseball, even giving him lessons on life. And Henry watches as Frank's presence transforms Adele into the person Henry remembered, one who danced and was full of life. He knows that Frank poses a threat to his relationship with his mother (he is fairly convinced that the two will escape one day and leave him to live with his father), and is torn between the desire to turn Frank in for the reward and the opportunity to be a "normal" family. The few days change every one of them in unimaginable ways.

I read this book with a tremendous sense of anticipation and dread. Even as I felt fairly certain I knew where the plot would go, Maynard threw in some surprises. She took basic characters—the lonely housewife, the wise convict, the insecure boy on the cusp of manhood—and imbued them with new life. I was torn between racing through the story and wanting to savor it, although I needed to know how Maynard would resolve things. This was a memorable and affecting book.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: "You Lost Me There" by Rosecrans Baldwin

First of all, how friggin' cool is the name Rosecrans Baldwin? Definitely begs for some notoriety, don't you think? Well, after reading this tremendously affecting book, I have little doubt Baldwin is on the fame track.

Victor Aaron is a fairly well-known Alzheimer's researcher running a university lab in Maine. He is struggling with the recent death of his screenwriter wife, Sara, with whom he had only recently gotten back together after an estrangement. One sleepless night he finds a stack of index cards on which Sara was chronicling what she determined to be the instances in their marriage where their relationship changed direction. (This was an exercise recommended to them by a marriage counselor.) As Victor reviews more and more of the cards, he realizes his perceptions of their marriage—and some of his memories of their relationship—differed significantly from Sara's, which leads him to question much of their past. This soul-searching, plus his encounters with his childhood best friend, his goddaughter, his lab director, his wife's eccentric aunt and a woman with whom he has had a romantic encounter, leads Victor to at least a few moments of reckoning.

I really enjoyed the general premise of this book, as it tried to examine the concept of what makes a memory, and how two people might see the same situation completely differently. Baldwin is a gifted writer and I found the story very readable and compelling. I did struggle, however, because I didn't find any of the characters very appealing at first glance (and some characters had so many quirks they never appealed to me). I just couldn't understand why Victor wanted to deal with so many unpleasant people. But that's what life is about: taking the good with the bad. And that was the appeal of You Lost Me There: some parts I loved and some parts I didn't.

Book Review: "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins

This second book in the Hunger Games trilogy really wowed me. I was impressed by Hunger Games, the first book in the series, when I read it earlier this year, but Collins definitely outdid herself with this second book. It's amazing how well-written and intricately plotted a book this is, considering that many books traditionally geared for the "young adult" audience skimp a bit on quality. (Haters: I said many, not all.)

When the first book in the series ended, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark had emerged victorious from the annual Hunger Games, a government-sanctioned, brutal fight-to-the-death that pitted two young people from each district against each other. Katniss outsmarted the Capitol by ensuring that two people survived the Games for the first time, and this has caused ripples of rebellion to ignite all over the country. So the Capitol enacts its revenge by turning Katniss' world upside down, throwing her challenge after challenge, and putting all those she loves at risk. (This is a super general description because so much of the book works when it comes as a surprise.)

What impressed me about these books is Collins' creativity in dreaming up the setting, the Hunger Games and the characters, as well as the maturity her characters showed. These aren't sniveling, whining, pining people (most of the time) and you find yourself getting truly emotionally invested in what happens to them. So now there's one more book left—Mockingjay—and much as with other series of books, I find myself torn between wanting to immediately tear into the next book and holding off, since it's the last. We'll see which part wins out...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Music Break...

Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street is definitely one of my most favorite songs of all time. (I'll get to the list of songs soon, although that's a tough one.) This is such a quintessential 70s song and one I recall hearing so many times growing up. (I have a memory of hearing it on our bus on the way to or from day camp, although I don't know if that bus actually had a radio, but I digress.)

Grab a listen...the saxophone solos are pure genius.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Things That Really Shouldn't Matter...

More often than not, what I read in the news appalls me. Sure, our world is in a precarious place right now; Mother Nature keeps wrecking havoc with floods, mudslides, earthquakes and storms, the economy is still shaky, and the general mood of our country is angry and pessimistic.

But it's not that news that gets me. This morning I was amazed by a story on Yahoo! which reported that Americans are increasingly convinced that President Obama is a Muslim, and a growing number are thoroughly confused about his religion. In fact, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and its affiliated Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and Time magazine/ABT SRBI both recently conducted polls to gauge public awareness of Obama's religion.

While I realize that recent conversations about whether to allow a mosque to be built on land near the World Trade Center brings general fear and prejudice against Muslims into stronger light, I fail to understand why people really need to be focused on the President's religion, especially when he is not Muslim.

Why is this news? Why does it matter? It's one thing if he was bending over backwards for one particular ethnic or racial group, but he isn't. And all of the progress he has tried to push this country toward has no Muslim overtones.

I can't help but feel this is yet another move by those who oppose the President's policies and the Democrats to obfuscate the issues that are truly important. Clearly there is nothing else wrong with our society these days, so we need to focus on things like the President's religion and gay marriage. I guess if there is any silver lining in these polls, it's that 52 percent of people said churches should stay out of politics. Not that that will happen any time soon.

I wish we could learn to accept that just because people don't agree with our views, it doesn't make them inferior. But that may be too much news for many.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: "The Glass Rainbow" by James Lee Burke

If I were to make a list of my all-time favorite authors, there's little doubt that James Lee Burke would find a place on that list. I've been reading his books since 1990 (he's one of those prolific authors who have the ability to write a book a year) and I can honestly say that there hasn't been one I didn't enjoy. It's a combination of his narrative skills, his creation of memorable characters that I see in my head after reading so many books they've been in, and the way he can evoke amazing imagery. (Plus, I met him at a book signing once and he was such a friendly and gracious person.)

The Glass Rainbow, another installment of Burke's series featuring Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, certainly didn't disappoint. Robicheaux is one of those people that trouble seems to follow wherever he goes, plus the doggedness that makes him a good detective often puts him in perilous situations. In this book, Dave is investigating the deaths of seven young women in a neighboring parish, although one, Bernadette Latiolais, doesn't seem to fit with the others. His investigation brings him—and his compadre, trouble magnet Clete Purcel—into the circle of violent pimp and drug dealer Herman Stanga. Stanga's murder doesn't make the situation any easier; in fact, every random situation Dave seems to come into contact with tends to uncover another double-cross, another dangerous person with their eyes set on destroying Dave and his family. The twists come fast and furious in this book, although Burke's narrative style doesn't give you too much too soon. I'll admit the ending confused me a little (if someone else reads this book, please let me know) but I found that the book really packed a punch.

For a fantastic series of books—and one you can start anywhere in the series if you don't want to go back to the beginning—pick up one of the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke. Truth be told, you can pick up any of Burke's books and you won't be disappointed. And now I have to wait another year for him to write another...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What's Missing is You...

Unbelievably, today marks five years since my Grandma Gloria passed away. My paternal grandmother, she honestly was one of the most amazing and wonderful people I'll ever know. She was such an enormous part of my life for so long, it's hard to believe she's already been gone for five years.

Widowed at age 57, she continued to work full-time in New York City until her early 70s. It was my grandmother who took my sister and I to the Statue of Liberty, and she also took me to a number of museums in New York. We used to call her our "playing grandma," because she was more than happy to spend hours sitting on the floor with us, playing board games and keeping us occupied.

More than all of that, however, my grandmother honestly was my biggest fan. I spoke to her several times a week, and she always loved to hear about everything in my life. It didn't matter how mundane the achievement—just knowing I achieved something made her so proud. She used to joke that "her chest grew bigger because she was so proud of me." Her support and encouragement was always so vital in my life; when I was at low points growing up, it seemed like she was my only ally, but that was enough.

I have enough memories of my grandmother to make her endure for the rest of my life, but her absence still leaves me a little hollow. Often I think about how excited or proud she'd be when certain things happen in my life, and when things don't go so well, I know she would have told me how much she loved me and how proud of me she always was.

Whenever I would leave to head home after visiting her, she always used to watch out the window as I pulled out of the parking lot. She'd watch and wave until I drove out of sight. So as sad as the memory of losing her still makes me, all I need to do is think about her watching me and waving to me, and it's just a little easier to bear.

I miss you and love you always...

Monday, August 9, 2010

What Marriage Is, According to Grover (and Jesse)...

A friend shared this Sesame Street clip on Facebook earlier today, and I think it sums up a lot. Can we share this with those who believe marriage is a moral and/or religious covenant?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

So, What's in that Tea, Anyway?

There's a line from the musical Wicked that says "people are so empty-headed, they'll believe anything." After reading this blog post on Think Progress, I think Fiyero might be on to something.

Three months ago, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now a Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado, started a bike-sharing program. This program has been a tremendous success, with nearly 14,000 participants signing up already. Yet not everyone shares the view that this program is a good thing—Republican gubernatorial candidate (and Tea Party supporter) Dan Maes believes Hickenlooper is up to something sinister. Hickenlooper's policies, particularly the bike-sharing program, are “converting Denver into a United Nations community,” Maes warns. And he told supporters at a recent rally that “This is all very well-disguised, but it will be exposed.”

I realize our society is in a tremendous anti-incumbent mood right now, that somehow they expected that President Obama and a Democratic Congress would be able to solve eight years of Bush-created problems in 18 months—and solve them the way the Republicans think they should. But honestly, when the motives of a bike-sharing program are questioned as nefarious, and people actually believe it, isn't it time to step back and wonder if all of the anger isn't cutting off the blood flow to our brains?

Book Review: "The Thieves of Manhattan" by Adam Langer

This book is an amazingly clever, entertaining, literature-loving romp. Adam Langer has written three previous books, all of which I've loved, but nothing he's written before prepared me for The Thieves of Manhattan. If you like literature, this book is truly a fun adventure.

Ian Minot is a writer struggling to find success. He keeps submitting his stories for publication, only to constantly receive rejection notices, while at the same time, his Romanian girlfriend, Anya, is on the cusp of her own successful literary career. Stuck in a dead-end job at a coffee shop, he is incensed by the success of another author's memoir, as somehow an average middle-class guy has convinced the world that he has endured gang fights and prison torture to become a street-wise, slang-spouting road warrior. This anger results in Ian's meeting Jed Roth, a former publisher whose desire to wreak havoc on the literary world draws Ian in. Jed's proposal is simple: Ian will pretend that Jed's adventure-esque novel is his own memoir, one Jed predicts the publishing world will fall head over heels for; at the right time, Ian will admit the memoir is a sham. However, this proposal isn't as cut-and-dried as it seems.

To describe any more of the book's plot would be to ruin some of the surprises it contains, but it has mystery, adventure, gun-toting librarians, even a roadtrip to Kansas. And Langer has developed a literary vocabulary all his own—women wear dresses called "golightlys," named for the main character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, people wear eyeglasses called franzens, named for the distinctive eyewear sported by author Jonathan Franzen, etc. (Rest assured, the book has a terrific glossary at the end so you don't miss any of the inside jokes.) This is a tremendously compelling, fun and intellectually challenging story I highly recommend. Definitely not quite your everyday book!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Review: "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson

You've got to love books that make you stay up as late as necessary to finish them. Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, second in the "Millennium Trilogy," was one of those books for me. And much like many other series of novels I've read, Larsson definitely hit his stride with this book. While the first book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was tremendously gripping and well-written, it definitely suffered a bit from an overload of details that didn't necessarily move the plot forward. But this book, while starting a bit slow, was definitely stronger than its predecessor.

Reporter Mikael Blomkvist is working with a freelance journalist on an article and book exposing sex trafficking in Sweden, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions and involved politicians, judges and policemen. Just before the article and book are to be published, the journalist and his girlfriend (on whose doctoral dissertation the exposé is based) are murdered. The suspect in these brutal murders, as well as one additional murder, is Lisbeth Salander, Blomkvist's socially awkward yet brilliant sometime-friend and researcher. Blomkvist is convinced of Salander's innocence even while the facts against her are mounting, and he defies the police and other enemies to try and figure out who really murdered his friends, while at the same time, forces from Salander's past are trying to remove her from the picture for good.

This book read like a movie, so it's not surprising to know that Swedish films have now been made of the first two books, and an American adaptation of the series is in final casting stages now. The action is great, some of the twists actually made me gasp, and Larsson never lets his main characters be one-dimensional. If you're like me and usually shy away from the books everyone else on Earth is reading, take my advice: read this one.

Love is Love is Love...

Equal rights got a shot in the arm earlier today when San Francisco Federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban, declaring that the ballot initiative outlawing gay unions in the Golden State violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. While conservative and pro-traditional-marriage (whatever that really means) supporters have already vowed to appeal Walker's decision, for a short period of time, it feels good to be on the winning side of a decision.

In his ruling, Walker made a fundamental statement:

"The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples."

If you break opposition to gay marriage down to the simplest of terms, people object to homosexuality on moral and/or religious grounds. And because people are morally opposed to and/or offended by homosexuality, they don't believe that gay people deserve the same rights that straight people do. But to base the granting of rights on the moral and religious objections of a group of people (even if they are the majority) goes against the very premise of separation of church and state that our nation was founded on.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, given its liberal leanings, is expected to uphold Walker's ruling, thus setting the gay marriage battle up for a showdown in the Supreme Court, and some believe the conservative Roberts-led court may very well side with the "traditional marriage" supporters. But that decision is a ways away. For a brief moment, it's nice to revel in the fact that our country took another step toward emulating so many others, allowing all of its citizens the same rights.

The right to love the person you choose, while not in the Constitution, is one of the most fundamental of all, so it's nice that we can all have that right protected, even briefly.