Friday, April 27, 2012

Please Look After Mom by Kyung Sook Sin

A very intriguing book.  First published in Korea in 2008, an international success, translated into English and released in the U.S. in 2011.

As the book opens, we realize that "mom" has been missing for a week.  She disappeared from a train station in Seoul while traveling with her husband to see their children.  He got on the train ahead of her and she was left behind.  Chapters describe how various family members feel as they search to find her, or don't.

The stories are told in the third person, and you are never quite sure who is speaking, except for the one chapter told in the first person near the end...which is a surprise.

Very thought provoking, and of course will make you think about your mother.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Litigators by John Grisham

The Litigators, another not-guilty pleasure from Grisham, is the kind of book that screams for a big tub of popcorn. Not long into it, you may find yourself casting the inevitable movie in your head (I picked Robert De Niro, Paul Giamatti, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the major roles, but have fun with your own casting call). You’ll most likely happily rush through the adventures and misadventures of the self proclaimed “boutique” law firm of Finley and Figg. Senior partner and unhappily married Oscar Finley and recovering alcoholic and four-times divorced Wally Figg have been joined by Harvard Law School grad David Zinc, who has just fled a high-paying, high-stress job at a big Chicago law firm. The trio deal primarily in divorce accident claims, and to that point even the office dog is named A.C. (Ambulance Chaser).

Just as suddenly as Zinc shows up on the Finley and Figg’s doorstep, the firm lands a case involving Krayoxx, a popular cholesterol reducer that might be responsible for the heart attacks of several overweight users of the product. Figg feels the supposed problems with the pharmaceutical could be his golden ticket; he just needs to sign up victims who want to sue, and then settle big out of court with the drug company. Settling out of court is a must, as litigation between Finley and Figg and Big Pharma could be disastrous. Soon, however, the goal of a smooth route to collecting big bucks is shattered, replaced by a courtroom fiasco starring newbie team member Zinc, who has never before tried a case.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds

I first heard Julie Zickefoose on All Things Considered, the diverse NPR radio program hosted by Melissa Block. I was drawn to her everyday observations of plant and animal life and her wise insights into the quiet and mundane. Currently living on an 80 acre wildlife sanctuary in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, artist and naturalist Zickefoose has ample opportunity to observe and draw. Since childhood she has rehabilitated injured or abandoned birds, now imbuing her own children with an "appreciation of nature and empathy for the small and helpless." (p. x)

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds is Zickefoose's collection of essays collected over decades, accompanied by beautiful sketches, handwritten notes, and elaborate watercolors. Each chapter, 25 in total, details the author's encounter with a particular type of common bird. While describing her varied experiences, she gives much information about each species. She humbly calls this, in her chapter about the Carolina Wren, "kitchen sink ornithology."

But her book also deals with the elusive Ivory Billed Woodpecker as well as the emerald Macaw she purchased as a pet in 1989. As a former owner of pet canaries, her piece made me smile with recognition. The neurotic behavior that sometimes accompanies a wild bird in captivity, not to mention the expense, were both issues I could relate to.

As for the chapter on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, it serves to underscore her sense of hope mixed with a warning.

The ivory-bill was an extravagant creature by all accounts, a vision in ebony and white...It needed a lot of timber, with many old, dying trees, and it was willing to travel to make its specialized living. We cut its habitat right out from under it, and we continue to cut it. We've sent it countless messages with our saws and our columns of smoke. Leave or die out. Find somewhere else to live. This land is our land now. And it just doesn't listen to us; it goes on, somewhere, I have to believe it; not dead but missing in action; alive, defiantly, desperately, joyously, alive. (p. 264)

The Bluebird Effect is beautifully written, informative, funny and heart-felt. It is the perfect springtime book for nature enthusiasts everywhere. Zickefoose's personalized stories imbue almost human qualities, such as thankfulness, to the wild birds she has rescued. But the real gift is the enriched life they so obviously give the author.

To listen to her NPR essays or simply look at her paintings, go to

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012


I Want My MTV, by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, is a delightful romp through the early years of MTV, when the station actually videos! It's an oral history so despite its nearly 600 page length it moves very fast. There are interviews with pioneers and early execs, rock stars and one-hit wonders, VJs, video directors and miscellaneous celebrities.

The first section of the book serves as a reminder of how revolutionary MTV was. A few musical artists were making music videos but until an MTV predecessor show named PopClips came around no one imagined that you could build a channel around the videos. When MTV premiered it was difficult to sell it to cable operators who held the power in deciding what channels would get played in what geographic areas. Following the successful "I Want My MTV!" campaign, which encouraged young viewers to call their local cable providers and demand access MTV started to sprout up on cable systems around the country, bringing in a young demographic that had not been well-served by cable television until that point.

It's hard to imagine that MTV was once reluctant to play videos by rap artists but until they were convinced by his label that people might want to see a Michael Jackson video there was hardly an African-American presence on the channel at all. Instead, the channel consisted largely of hard rock and later, hair metal bands. Following charges of racism MTV launched Yo! MTV Raps!, which turned out to be hugely successful and led the way to a surge of rap programming. Much of this book follows how MTV seemed to reluctantly move from one trend to another, while capturing a new audience with each move. It's also good fun to trace early video glories and mistakes (see Billy Squier's videos) as the channel launched talented new directors including David Fincher and Michael Bay.

Ultimately it became hard to keep an audience tuned in when music video programming was so segmented. The difficulty in keeping viewership through a variety of videos turned out to be trickier than doing so with a program that had a beginning, middle and end. This fact, tied with the lack of originality in new videos, led to MTV's forays into other types of programming such as game shows, fashion and the reality shows that have proven to be such a success. The book ends in the early 1990s when videos ceased to be an important part of MTV's programming.

The effect that MTV had on the music industry is debatable, with some feeling that it exposed small-town America to types of music that it might not have heard otherwise, while others felt that the need to create music videos watered down the product and music needed to reinvent itself again. The book is a lot of fun both as a story of the music and music video business and in tracing the cultural landmarks that MTV touched upon. It might just make you miss the 80s!

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

I loved reading this book, and it is haunting me.  Set in China from 1906-1966, this is the story of two Mennonites who go to China to do mission work.  They fall in love and marry, forming a wonderful team. She, Katherine, is trained as a nurse, and he, Will,  a preacher.  Together they bring a shining example of faith and love to the Chinese they serve.

This novel is beaurifully writen, and combines themes of love, faith loss and determination along with a good dose of (often violent) Chinese history and politics.  I highly recommend it, and look forward to reading the author's other book.  (The Distant Land of my Father was published in 2002.)
Historic Fiction well told.

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Lord of Misrule

If you missed this novel when it first came out, race to read it now. Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule is, on the surface, a book about horse racing, but there is so much below the surface in this novel.

This is not horse racing as "the sport of kings"; rather it is a story set at the racetracks where the horses and their trainers, jockeys, and grooms are simply struggling to survive. The particular setting of this track is Indian Mounds Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia.

Each of the characters has a very different voice in which the story is told and a very different temperament. The reader comes to know horseman Tommy Hansel, veteran groom Medicine Ed, Kidstuff the blacksmith, old lady “gyp” Deucey Gifford, stall superintendent Suitcase Smithers, the ominous leading trainer, Joe Dale Bigg, and the ruled-off “racetrack financier” Two-Tie. But, it is Tommy's girlfriend Maggie Koderer who is the heart of this book. To quote the book jacket: "Like the beautiful, used-up, tragic horses she comes to love, Maggie has just enough heart to wire everyone’s flagging hopes back to the source of all luck."

Each of the four major sections features a different horse in a different race. There are many moments when the reader will fear for one of the characters, human or equine. The drama of the characters' lives and of the horse races is excitingly and vividly portrayed. The language of the characters is rough, yet exquisitely poetic. Lord of Misrule was a winner, of the National Book Award in 2010. Read the book to find out what happens to the horse named Lord of Misrule. You do not have to know or understand horse racing to understand this book. "Yet and still," as Medicine Ed says, "Yet and still."

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

(also a motion picture)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
, first published in French in 2000 and in English in 2001, takes place during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Tse-Tong. The book, written by French filmmaker and writer, Dai Sijie, is semi-autobiographical: from 1971-1974, he was sent to Sechwan Province to be "re-educated." There, he endured hardships similar to those of his teenage protagonists, Luo and The Narrator. Because this book is written as a fable, Luo is the only character with a proper name.

Both boys are sons of doctors. During the Revolution, all universities were closed and Chinese youth who finished high school were labelled "intellectuals" and sent to farm with the peasants. Luo and the narrator live in demeaning conditions and are forced to labor long hours in a coal mine. Even worse, they are forced to haul human and animal manure up a mountain, much of it spilling on their backs.

Because of their gift for telling stories, the village headman allows them to go to town to see films for the purpose of re-telling their narrative plots. In the beginning, Luo is the better storyteller, but the narrator soon improves his skill. Together, the narrator's ability to play the violin and Luo's gift for tale and improvisation, earn them greater freedom.

On one of their trips across the mountain, they meet "the princess of Phoenix Mountain." She is the beautiful daughter of an itinerant tailor. The Little Seamstress falls for Luo, who is attracted to this lovely, but "uncivilized" girl. (p. 27)

It is during a visit to a former school chum, Four-Eyes, that the boys discover a chest of western classics. Such books have been banned as anti-Communist propaganda. The boys persuade Four Eyes to loan them Balzac's Ursule Mirouet. As they read the book, their vision of life is transformed. The narrator writes: "Picture a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heart nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideaology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of the the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me." (p. 57)

Now the plot thickens. Luo decides to read Balzac's book to The Little Seamstress, hoping to make her more cultured. He makes daily treks to the tailor's home, reading his beloved passages from the book. They become sexually involved. The narrator loves her from afar, but remains true to his friend. Both boys decide to steal the treasure of books from Four-Eyes.

Thereafter, their limited world opens to new horizons. This is especially true of the the eighteen year old narrator. Speaking for the author, he tells the reader that "he came to love Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and even Romain Rolland." It is especially the latter's four-piece masterpiece, Jean-Christophe, that resonates with him. "...Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual." (p. 110)

Is this a fable with a happy ending? This reader will not disclose a spoiler. The book, true to life, ends with many questions. And like a good fable, it teaches some lessons about love and friendship. Above all, it reinforces the power of reading to transcend time and place.

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