Saturday, November 9, 2019

#36 [2019/CBR11] "The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion

I'd first heard of The Rosie Project (2013) quite a while ago but only recently picked it up to read. It is a pretty light, romantic comedy involving Don Tillman and Rosie Jarman. Don Tillman is on the autism spectrum. He's very smart and methodical but also very awkward in social situations. Don has been successful in many areas of his life and is a tenured professor at a university in Australia. However, always awkward and misunderstanding, he's never been lucky in love. But wanting love and a family like so many others, Don decides that he needs a partner and devises a perfect plan to find one.

Don creates a questionnaire to assist him with his "wife project." It is very specific and covers everything from education, timeliness, and hygiene to food preferences, health, and even makeup. He follows the advice of his only friends: his womanizing, coworker Gene and Gene's psychologist wife Claudia.

I can't imagine that a woman on a dating site would bother answering such a detailed, kind of offensive, questionnaire before even meeting their prospective date, but, surprisingly, Don gets many responses. Many of them are immediately unsuitable because Don is ridiculously picky.

Before he can make much progress, Rosie shows up in his office. With a nice, meet-cute misunderstanding, Rosie and Don are suddenly going out to dinner together. The dinner is a spectacular failure, but even though Rosie would answer every one of Don's questions incorrectly, there is something about her that goes well with him. She's late, she smokes, she wears makeup. But she also finds Don intelligent and amusing. She pushes him in some ways and understands him in others. She also needs his genetic knowledge in discovering the identity of her real birth father.

Don and Rosie spend a good amount of time together as they go after discovering her real father. They definitely become closer, and Don shows himself to be a very loyal and selfless companion. There are still ups and downs as Don stubbornly sticks to his "wife project" and questionnaire. But this is a romantic comedy, so it all ends well.

I found this book pretty fun and entertaining. Don and his perception of the world were usually pretty funny, and I admired his honesty and integrity. There were definitely parts of the book that didn't seem particularly realistic, but it didn't really matter because I enjoyed what I was reading.

Monday, September 16, 2019

#35 [2019/CBR11] "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" by Heather Morris

A co-worker of mine, who rarely has the patience for reading entire books, told me that he, his wife, and his mother all raced through a book, reading it in less than a week. I was immediately intrigued and put The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris on hold at the library. It's a New York Times Bestseller with 4.5 stars on Amazon. At heart, Tattooist is a love story between Gita and Lale that occurs between 1942 and 1945 at the German concentration camp located in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Tattooist is a work of fiction based on the real Lale's life. As far as I can tell, Morris stuck relatively closely to what Lale told her. Lale arrived at Auschwitz in April 1942. Gita arrived a couple of weeks before him. They were both Slovakian Jews and were put to work at the camp. Lale was able to obtain the relatively privileged position of tattooing people arriving at the camp, which afforded him some safety and a little bit more food. Lale first saw Gita when he tattooed her arm, and he immediately fell in love. With some help, he was able to find her, and the two slowly began a romance amidst the evil, death, and uncertainty surrounding them.

Morris had written a number of screenplays when she heard about Lale, who wanted to tell his story. They both lived in Australia and Morris met with him numerous times over three years to learn about his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Morris first wrote a screenplay, but then adapted it into what became this novel.

It is practically impossible to set a true story in the desperation and horrors of the German concentration camps and not find it compelling. However, I was disappointed in the writing of this book. Considering the content, it felt surprisingly emotionless. Perhaps because this is Morris's first book or because she normally writes screenplays, it felt a little lifeless. In fact, the novel often felt like a screenplay. As I read, I often imagined scenes made better by good, emoting actors and the set designs a camera could capture. There were plenty of horrifying scenes described in this book, including innumerable people killed and the tortures of Dr. Josef Mengele. However, many of these scenes were not given enough detail, time, and importance to feel real. The true hunger, suffering, and desperation did not come across in this book. I felt more emotion reading The Death Angel Doctor Josef Mengele's Wikipedia page than I did reading this book.

In addition, the characters felt pretty flat. This is probably a combination of the majority of the story coming from Lale's recollection and Morris's writing style. Lale obviously felt some guilt at his "complicity" with the Germans by gaining advantages from tattooing his fellow prisoners. I think this could have been explored more--both his feelings, the feelings of other prisoners and his actions. I didn't feel like I had a good idea of who Lale and Gita really were or why they liked each other in the first place.

Love in the midst of the darkest despair is always compelling, but I was disappointed because I felt so much more could have been done with this story.

P.S. ***SPOILER*** It stated in the Afterword that one of Gita's friends, Cilka, was charged as a Nazi conspirator and sentenced to hard labor. I desperately wanted to know more of Cilka's story and what happened to her. According to the novel, Cilka was chosen by the Auschwitz commander, and was repeatedly raped for over a year. As is obvious, she was not in any kind of position to say no. Did she actually do anything to deserve being called a conspirator or was this yet another example of blaming the victim? I want to know more about her.

#34 [2019/CBR11] "Transcription" by Kate Atkinson

I stumbled upon Life After Life by Kate Atkinson after some favorable Cannonball reviews, and I really liked it. So when I saw that Atkinson had a new book out, Transcription (2018), I immediately put a hold on it at the library. Like the other books I've read by Atkinson, most of the events of this book take place in and around WWII.

This story is split into two time frames. The first is during the war, where our protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, works as a typist for MI5. The second is after the war, about 1950 when Juliet Armstrong works as a radio producer for the BBC. At MI5, Juliet is quickly recruited for a small side project. She works in an apartment, next door to Godfrey, an English spy pretending to be a German spy. She makes transcriptions of all the conversations between him and other German sympathizers.

When the story switches to after the war, there are continuous hints of something that went bad with Juliet and her job with the MI5, but we don't know what. Back in 1950, Juliet is not particularly fulfilled by her job at the BBC. She runs into Godfrey, but he pretends he doesn't know her. At the same time, Juliet feels sure that she is being followed. She tries to find everyone involved with whatever went down during the war, hoping to discover who is following her and why. It's hard for the reader to know whether someone is really after her or if Juliet is being paranoid and crazy.

I can appreciate that there is some good writing in this book, but I found it rather challenging to read. I liked Life After Life much better. For much of this book, my primary emotion was confusion. There were many characters that I didn't know much about and I couldn't keep straight. I also had a hard time figuring out what was actually going on. I know this was by design, but it made for a not-as-fun read.

Atkinson wrote a story filled with spies, subterfuge, and double agents. She purposely makes you question--and not truly understand--any of the characters. It's a unique story, but when the characters are so shadowy and mysterious, it's hard to connect to any of them. For most of the story, I just felt like Atkinson was messing with my head. And although there are some reveals in the end, I did not find it very satisfying. Even after the reveal I was left with questions, and much of the rigmarole seemed pointless. Again, I do think this was intentional, but I often found it to be a frustrating reading experience.

"When all else failed, the mundane remained."

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

#33 [2019/CBR11] "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik


Many years ago, I stumbled upon a series of books that mixed fantasy with re-imagined history. These were the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik, and they described what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like if there had been dragons. Temeraire and his pilot create the base for the novels. I did not end up finishing the series, but I found them pretty enjoyable. So when I saw that Novik was getting notice for some new books based on fairy tales, I was intrigued. I picked up Uprooted (2015) with some optimism.

Now, Uprooted has 4.6 stars on Amazon. It won the Nebula Award, was a Hugo Award Finalist, and was one of NPR's best books of the year. It is obvious that plenty of people really enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, I was not one of them. After finally finding a couple of very negative reviews on Goodreads that were similar to my opinion, I've decided that Uprooted is very polarizing.

The book begins with mystery and danger. Every ten years, the dragon chooses one seventeen-year-old girl to go live with him in his tower. She returns after ten years: the town assumes she is "ruined," and she takes off for lands far away. Agnieszka is both relieved and guilty that her best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and good at everything, will surely be chosen. The dragon is actually a man, a wizard named Sarkan. And it is a great surprise when he chooses Agnieszka and tears her away from her family and friends with no warning.

It turns out that Sarkan chose Agnieszka because he could tell that she could do magic. Sarkan begins to try to teach her magic, but it's difficult because she sees magic differently. Sarkan's job is to keep the evil forest at bay with his magic and it's getting more difficult. When Kasia is stolen by the Wood, Agnieszka runs away to try to help her and somehow manages to tear her away from the evil heart tree.

Sarkan and Agnieszka eventually work together to suck out all the corruption from the Wood that found a home in Kasia. Kasia is saved but somehow has become treelike--strong, unwieldy, and unbreakable. This leads to some uncomfortable politics with the King's son who wants to save his mother, war with another kingdom, and some time spent at court.

We eventually find out that the evil of the Wood began with a queen from long ago who was unwillingly buried in the tomb with her dead husband. She originally came from the forest and her anger, resentment, and retribution caused all of the evil and suffering in the Wood.

First, I found the premise of this book intriguing. I wanted to know why a girl was chosen, why she was needed, and what happened in those missing ten years. But I was immediately disappointed. I guess most of the girls were used as basic servants, companionship, and a connection to the valley for some ridiculous magical purpose. Agnieszka was different because she knew magic, and Sarkan tried to teach her magic.

I had three main problems with this book. The first was the relationship between Agnieszka and Sarkan. In the beginning, it felt like an uncomfortable romance, where they kept accidentally finding themselves close to each other or in each other's arms. But it wasn't remotely romantic. Sarkan was a mean bully who did nothing but verbally abuse Agnieszka. He was impersonal, callous, and he never changed. He was also hundreds of years older than Agnieszka. Bella and Edward from Twilight are a shining example of relationships compared to Agnieszka and Sarkan. Sarkan did not have one ounce of compassion in his entire body. I was surprised when they finally came together.

The second problem was probably the world building, but specifically the magic. It didn't make any sense. It felt like Agnieszka could or couldn't do anything she wanted depending on the needs of the narrative. Sometimes she could transport herself to places, sometimes she could talk to Sarkan, sometimes she could create an ox out of dirt to pull their carriage that villagers wouldn't notice was fake. It felt random and not grounded in any kind of framework to make it meaningful.

The third problem for me was that I did not care about the characters. They did not feel real, and I did not care what happened to them. I could not identify at all with Agnieszka. Her actions always felt random. Characters were often rapidly introduced and then killed off, but there was nothing to make me feel connected to them. There were pages and pages of an epic battle where 6,000 men were killed, but they were nameless and faceless so none of them mattered. You would think that the origin story of the Wood would have to be very powerful because it is the source of so much evil and suffering, but I just didn't care about a nameless, woman ghost we'd never even heard of before.

By the end of the book, I'd lost all interest in the characters, and was just reading to finish the novel. This was a big disappointment because it came so highly rated and I liked some of the Temeraire novels.

#32 [2019/CBR11] "Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann

I first saw Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann on NPR's Best Books of 2017. It is also a National Bestseller, a National Book Award Finalist, and just the kind of non-fiction that I would find interesting. However, with all the books out there, it took me some time to get around to reading it--which I finally did halfway through 2019.

The Osage tribe was forced from their lands and confined to a barren part of Oklahoma. However, the Osage kept their mineral rights, and their fortunes changed drastically when a large oil reserve was discovered on their land. Suddenly tribal members had access to large amounts of money, and they could afford nice cars and large homes. Following this new stream of income were people ready and willing to do anything to get their hands on all that money. What made this easier is that the federal government required most of the Osage to have guardians to "safeguard" their money. The guardians were white and could use their positions to control and steal from their charges. It also put the Osage in an incredibly vulnerable position.

This book is split into three parts. The first section discusses a short history of the Osage tribe and the impact of the discovery of oil on tribal lands. It goes on to detail a number of unsolved murders and the initial murder investigations that occurred in the 1920's. The book begins with the murder of Mollie Burkhardt's sister, who was found shot in the head in a riverbed. In addition, another sister of Mollie's was blown up in her home with her husband. Also, Mollie's mother died of an unexplained illness. The deaths were so frequent and so suspicious that it affected almost everyone on the reservation. People moved away and lived in fear.

The second part of the book details when the FBI finally got involved in some of the murder investigations. Tom White was the son of a lawman, and he comes across as a decent, hardworking man who broke much of the case. White was under a lot of pressure from J. Edgar Hoover, who was eager to showcase the FBI, but he did a very good job in following leads and gathering enough evidence to make a difference.

The third part of the book shows just how widespread the murders of the Osage were and how little was done about it. I realize this was the wild west in a very different time, but it's shocking how cavalier the murder of so many innocent people was. We're definitely dealing with some very bad people, but there must also have been some deep racism involved for this to even happen, let alone go on for as long as it did.

I thought this book was very interesting, and I learned a lot. My only complaint was that there were so many different names and people thrown at you in the beginning, it could get a little confusing. However, the town comes into focus as I read more. The scope of the tragedy is almost too large to contemplate, but this was a fascinating read on the subject.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

#31 [2019/CBR11] "The Rock Warrior's Way" by Arno Ilgner

I've been climbing (primarily in the gym) for about four years now. I love it, and it is definitely one of my favorite hobbies. However, it's always challenging and I often find myself fighting mental blocks. Sometimes I'm high up on the bouldering wall and I get scared, or I don't want to push too hard when I'm lead climbing because I'm afraid of falling. Sometimes I'm just tired and I don't feel like trying very hard. Someone at my gym saw me fail to commit to a climb and recommended that I read The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers (2003) by Arno Ilgner.

This is a book written by and for climbers. Although the tenets are universal and can be applied to any aspect of your life, I would imagine the climbing stories and analogies would eventually get old for non-climbers. On the other hand, I love climbing, but I wouldn't consider myself very hard core. I don't go on epic climbing trips, and the routes I do are not particularly hard. I avoided this book for too long because I was afraid it would be directed towards "real" climbers. Fortunately, I was wrong. I found a lot of great information about attitude and the way to approach challenges that are helpful for many different of aspects of my life.

One of the lessons that most stuck with me is that success or failure doesn't matter. Your goal when approaching a climb should be to try hard and learn something about yourself. That way you will be better when you try again. Worrying about making it to the top simply wastes energy that should be focused on the climbing at hand.

Another fascinating topic was how much your ego gets in the way of living in the moment. Your ego is constantly producing a narrative about your life that makes you feel good about yourself. Once you have that narrative, it's hard to let go. Your mind might spend considerable energy trying to protect its idea of itself. This could be if you feel you are too good of a climber to be struggling on a particular climb, or if you feel like you should be climbing better than your climbing partner. Your ego also likes to make excuses for you when you fail. Ilgner says this is all a waste of energy. The more you can silence your ego and live in the moment, the better off you will be.

I've been trying to apply these principles to both my life and my climbing with mixed/positive results. I still definitely get scared on climbs and I certainly haven't silenced my ego, but being aware of some of these principles has subtly changed my approach.

Below are a number of quotes or lessons that I highlighted while I was reading. However, these lessons are still best with the context of the entire book.

*First, accept that life is hard.
*The qualities you bring to game day will be the exact same qualities you cultivate during practice.
*The way you live your life is exactly the way you will climb.
*Our reactions are steeped in our old fear-driven patterns.
*How one uses attention--does one waste it or focus it on the task at hand?
*The ultimate quest is to gain self-knowledge and personal power--our ability to act effectively and to venture into unknown facets of the world.
*Authentic self-worth comes from an internal value system, not from simple achievement.
*What matters is learning. You want to test yourself.
*Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
*Everything in the risk zone is potential you haven't yet realized.
*Focus attention on the love force (doing the thing you love) rather than the phantom fears force.
*Your goal is to participate openly in the challenge.
*Success and failure do not exist in the present, only effort and action exist.
*We want to be at peace with ourselves and be able to maintain that peace in the face of adversity.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

#30 [2019/CBR11] "Pieces of Her" by Karin Slaughter

I stumbled upon Cop Town by Karin Slaughter about five years ago and really enjoyed it--much more than I was expecting. So, when I saw one of Slaughter's latest books, Pieces of Her (2018), out on book shelves, I put it on hold at the library. Like Cop Town, Pieces of Her is a page-turning fest of violence and intrigue. I think I read it in about one day, and I had a hard time putting it down. However, I still prefer Cop Town, which felt a little more realistic and was more immediately relevant to my life.

Andrea (Andy) Oliver is a 31-year-old 911-dispatcher who lives with her mother. She's not doing much with her life and certainly doesn't have any direction or control over it. Her mother, Laura, is a divorced speech pathologist living in a coastal retirement community. The book begins with a scene of sudden and terrifying violence. Laura's response to the violence causes Andy to reconsider everything she once thought about her mother.

Andy ends up going on a road trip that forces her to grow up as well as discover and face the person her mother really was. The book alternates between Andy's predicament in the present day and her mother's true story--both of which I found very interesting. I was immediately caught up in the story and I enjoyed Slaughter's writing. My only complaint is that I kept getting sidetracked by little (or big) details that didn't feel right to me.

***SPOILERS***
Andy and Laura are eating lunch when they are interrupted by an eighteen-year-old boy angry at his girlfriend for breaking up with him. He comes into the diner, shooting his ex-girlfriend and her mother and then turning the gun on others. When he turns the gun on Andy, Laura calmly steps between them, telling Andy to run. The boy stabs her in the hand and Laura uses the knife (still in her hand) to stab him in the neck, eventually killing him.

Andy cannot understand how her mother is capable of such violence, and she is only more confused when her mother summarily kicks Andy out of her house. But when there is another attack and another dead body, Laura tells Andy to find an old storage unit, take some money and the car and drive west. Her life is in danger. Suddenly Andy is on her own, fearful of being followed, and trying to figure out the truth about the woman she's known all her life.

Eventually we discover that Laura is actually Jane Queller, the daughter of a billionaire pharmaceutical company owner who ran group homes for the mentally ill. Jane is young and unhappy. She had to deal with constant sexual and physical abuse from her father as she was growing up. She and her brother Andy are enticed by the charismatic Nick Harp to join "The Army of the Changing World"--something of a cult that reminded me very much of the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst. Nick has high ideals about changing the world, and Jane's father is a good target. Not only abusive, he also fraudulently kicked people out of group homes and charged for deceased patients in order to make more money.

In the end, both Andy and Laura/Jane are able to find some kind of independence. Laura/Jane is strong enough to eventually escape the clutches of Nick when her baby and brother are both in danger. And Andy becomes more independent and decisive as she goes on her journey. I thought the relationship between Jane and Nick was especially chilling. Their interactions are immediately uncomfortable, but the reader doesn't realize how bad he really is until later.

This was all really good, but what bothered me were some of the details. There was a lot of talk about Laura and Andy worried about being charged with murder when they were clearly acting in self defense. If a guy walks into a diner with a loaded gun, murders at least two people, threatens your daughter, and then stabs you with a knife, there is nothing you could do that wouldn't be self defense. Additionally, if a man breaks into your house and is torturing your mother, then you are well within your rights to kill him. There are certainly grey areas when it comes to claiming self defense, but these are some of the most black and white cases out there. It drove me crazy that Slaughter kept saying "murdered him in cold blood" or "killed a kid in cold blood." She was making all these distinctions with what Laura said and what direction she shifted when it did not matter. It was self defense.

Some other nitpicks: How did "The Army of the Changing World" get their money that they had stashed all over the place? Were they stealing from the mentally ill as well? How was no foul play suspected when a man is found dead in the bay with a significant head wound? Why did Andy not need or worry about having a license when she checked into her first motel although she used her mother's fake I.D. the rest of the time? How did Mike go from being knocked out on the ground to finding and following Andy on the road? Why was Laura/Jane okay with kidnapping a professor that railed against her father and probably would have been an asset to their cause?

***END SPOILERS***

In the end, the story and the characters more than kept my attention. However, the distraction of all those details that didn't quite fit kept me from enjoying it quite as much as Cop Town. In the end, though, I am very impressed by Slaughter's writing and storytelling, and I'm sure I'll be reading another book by her soon.

"Love doesn't keep you in a constant state of turmoil. It gives you peace." (447)