Thursday, January 21, 2010

Born to Run A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

by Christopher McDougall

Thumbs Up.

This books takes the reader on a tour of the American ultra-marathon circuit, with detailed descriptions of the routes and challenges. We meet a generous handful of the colorful runners who frequent these amazing races.

We pay a couple of visits to the Copper Canyons of northwestern Mexico. We encounter drug runners, local characters, and super-athletic Tarahumara Native Mexicans.

McDougall does an excellent job pulling the reader along to find out what happens next while he relates his quest for pain-free running.

To sum up the things he learned:
  1. run barefoot
  2. eat vegetarian traditional diet
  3. vary workout to "surprise" your body in order to increase reflexive reactions
  4. in order to achieve optimal fat burning, run at just below cardio-vascular workout level
If you can do all these things, according to McDougall, you will be able to run for hundreds of miles without any running related injuries and, as a bonus, never get cancer.

One has to ignore the anti-capitalist sentiment expressed with some amount of vitriol against particularly the Nike corporation. They ruined everyone's feet by marketing increasingly specialized running shoes. And the evolutionary explanations for various aspects of physiology are a little overdone in some parts.

An obvious inconsistency to an astute reader, was the glorification of a traditional vegetarian diet, while in other places in the book McDougall explains that the Tarahumara tribesmen developed their great reflexes and amazing endurance while hunting. They regularly chase down rabbits on foot and follow deer until the prey tires and can be overcome.

A final commendation for anyone with limited discretionary time: the book, although nearly 300 pages long, was a very quick read.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

Thumbs Up

In this first person narrative Francie Nolan tells of her growing up years in Brooklyn, NY, during the early part of the 20 century among a cast of colorful characters. The book is well crafted, and a reader comes to love the characters, flaws and all.

This is an excellent historical fiction. It led me to a fuller historical appreciation of the multi-textured community of immigrant Brooklyn at that time; and it helped to to place historical events and conditions more accurately in my mental framework of American history. The later part of the book takes place during the years leading up to and including World War I.

It does however, have a sadness to it. As I said, the characters are not flawless. They live in very poor conditions. The descriptions of the school setting in which Francie starts her school years is especially heartbreaking to me.

All in all, though, I see the story of the American spirit coming through. These peoples from all over the world come here for a better life. They at first live in hard times. We see and hear about the baby steps each generation makes in achieving what we call the American Dream. And as realistic historical fiction often does, it ought to prick the conscience of many of us who all to easily complain of our current economic hardships.

The book was published in 1943 and was a huge success. It seems somewhat little known these days. I wonder if that is because of political correctness and the forced silences imposed by our current cultural sensitivities. The book certainly shows people for what they are, which is not always nice. And it certainly shows racial and social prejudices that were alive during the period it depicts. It is a quite lengthy book and I would say the action is slow. So perhaps it does not fit into our "instant gratification" lifestyle.

Since I"m a homeschooling mom, I have to add the following. The book is fairly clean, although there are some things alluded to that fall into more mature themes. But it would be a good choice for an older child. Sonlight Curriculm uses it for their high school level 20th Century History course.

One more little aside, this book is apparently considered a bildungrsroman, or a teaching novel. I had never heard the term, so I did a little reading on it. I guess that makes it educational in the literary sense, too...

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Thumbs Up.

This is one of the quintessentially feel good books. The story, set in Great Britain during the immediate aftermath of World War II, is told through a collection of letters to and from the main character, author Juliet Ashton. The letters flow briskly between Juliet, her publisher, her best friend, and various other colorful characters.

Through kind of a fluke occurrence, Juliet begins a new correspondence with Dawsey Adams, a farmer from Guernsey. They develop a sort of pen pal friendship which eventually leads Miss Ashton to the idea for her next book.

The book is filled with beauty, fun, courage, and love as the characters share their stories of survival during the recent days of fear and sadness.

The original author, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away before this her first book was in its final form. It was finished by her niece and fellow author, Annie Barrows. The end result is lovely, and I can't help thinking the world has missed out on a little more beauty with Mrs. Shaffer's passing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Going Rogue

by Sarah Palin

Thumbs Up.

I debated on how to rate this book. I consider myself a Sarah Palin fan, so I'm not really the most objective reviewer.

I'll get my criticism out of the way first. From a technical point of view, the book is uneven. It is basically a "My Life Thus Far." If you expect a work of literary genius, you will be disappointed. The narrative drags at times. There are places at which the chronology jumps around.

If you want a work of philosophical brilliance, again, you're not going to find it. The book is her story, which at times involves summarizing her philosophical ideals.

If you are a Sarah fan and want to hear your own conservative principles articulated clearly and concisely, you might feel let down. Governor Palin does not claim to be a spokesperson for conservatism in general. She definitely kowtows to no political party or group.

But the book does tell her story. Most of us in the lower 48 will find her anecdotes of Alaskan adventure interesting if not somewhat awe-inspiring. I especially liked a story of her dad, a science teacher, leading scientific discussions at the supper table. I've returned the book to the library, so I can't quote directly, but she finished the paragraph with something to the effect of she didn't realize that not everyone sat around the supper table listening to talks on naturalism while dining upon caribou lasagna. The spirit of independence associated with frontier America comes through loud and clear in her writing.

Another aspect of her personality with which I was impressed was her faith. It's hard for those outside a tradition of faith to understand how one can have strong religious convictions and yet administrate in a manner they would consider objectively. This book might help a discerning reader see how this works in the life of a civic leader who adheres strongly to his or her religious tenets. I think Governor Palin gives some fine examples of how her Christian faith guides her in her personal life. But her civic actions were guided by the social precepts with which she was charged, for instance, the Alaskan constitution.

She also tells very plainly of the pain she's suffered at the hands of the press and political foes, and even occasionally those who have purported to be political friends. The offenses I knew of barely scratched the surface of what she and her family lived through as a result of the 2008 campaign. There were times while reading, when my heart cried for her or one of her family members.

From a political point of view, she often mentions political goals she held during her tenure first on the Wasilla city council, and all the way through to her Vice Presidential campaign. She lists such things as small government, accountability to the constituents, lower taxes, less regulation, local control. She only occasionally mentions getting back to constitutional roots. But she does talk about operating within the Alaskan constitution. That struck me as a strong point in her favor. Many are the voices for adherence to the constitution on the national level. But from among the myriad voices calling for such adherence along with small local governance, I am probably not alone when I say I've given little or no thought to my own state's constitution. That struck me as a blaring inconsistency within my own value system.

The fact that she distances herself from the conservative movement made me a bit uncomfortable from a philosophical point of view. But only uncomfortable because she doesn't spell out from which conservatives she chooses to distance herself.

This woman does not need political success in order to feel fulfilled. Her family is her life. Any political position she is entrusted with is a vocation. A job to be done faithfully, to the best of her ability. But her family is her lasting legacy. This is a woman who is stalwart in her ideals; she has spirit, tenacity, compassion and strength of character.

Middle Passage

by Charles Johnson

Thumbs Down

Rutherford Calhoun is a freed slave from southern Illinois. After his master's demise, he ran away to seek his fortune. Actually, in this first person account, he makes no bones about the fact that he ran away to seek a life of dissipation in New Orleans. After he finds such a life, his outstanding debts combine with the conniving of a female friend, drive him to stow away on a ship he later learns is a slave vessel. The rest of the story examines philosophically, the effects of slavery on the psyche of the African race and the various ways it manifests itself in the ensuing personalities of those who would later come to be called African Americans. This within the guise of a seafaring tale.

There is already enough said about the potential for historical revisionism within the angry blot of America's slave history. But in order to read the book with any amount of plausibility, one has to accept as fact many things the historical accuracy of which is continually debated within anthropological and historical scholarship.

The biggest drawback for me is that the book is presented as the journal of an emancipated, but educated free slave in about 1830, The protagonist, Calhoun, frequently lapses into soliloquies containing philosophical and historical details that firstly, would not be likely to be known by even an educated slave from a rural area of southern Illinois. Worse yet, many of the philosophies and historical views upon which he ruminates were not yet developed at that time. A few of them, such as those of Kant and Hegel, might have been under development, but with little or no chance at their being widespread enough to have been accessible to even the free men in southern Illinois.

After sneaking into the captain's cabin, Calhoun describes "Etruscan vases, Persian silk prayer carpets, and portfolios of Japanese paintings on rice paper." I wondered at that point whether such a character would be able to identify things like these. Later he sees the captain with a "Tyrian robe of Chinese design."

When the ships boy, Tommy O'Toole saw a vision, of sorts, he spoke a strange language, a combination of "Bushman, Cushite, and Sudanic tongues." I'm not convinced an emancipated slave would be so quick to identify all of them.

The leader of the Allmuseri slaves, Ngonyama, with rudimentary English, was able to relate the whole of his people's history, including their beginnings in Mohenjo-Daro. With minimal checking, I found that the original name of the city is unknown; and even the modern discovery of it was not made until 1920.

Historical inconsistencies such as these really detract from the believability of the characters and story line.

The author tosses names about constantly. We hear about Ptolemeic astrology and Leibnizian logic; El Greco-like subject for sculptors; Sisyphean pursuits; the Bardo-Thodol; Faust; Hegelian equation; Peter Paul Rubens; Vedic sorrow; Teresa of Avila, Aristippus, Bacon, Berkely; Ancillon, de Maistre, Portalis; Bach, Beethoven; Jan van Ruysbroek; William Law; a Platonic cave; Parmenidean meaning and Heraclitean change; and so on. A reader cannot help but wonder whether the author was looking for a canvas upon which to show off his learning.

I suppose one could use the book as an opportunity to fill in the blanks of his or her own education. I looked up a few things, but after awhile, I kind of skimmed over many names. I guess in the game of who knows the most, I will have to cry, "Uncle!"

Two brief positive notes, 1) The plot takes a very satisfactory curve at the end. It totally caught me off guard. And 2) In the context of discussing some of these philosophies and historical figures with my very educated husband, I knew Heraclite was a philosopher, he didn't. (I had to include that, because it really doesn't happen very often. Yes, Joe, I'm gloating.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Thumbs Up!

Sorry to be violating blog etiquette, but this isn't a book.  It's a game.  But, it's a game about books, so hopefully that counts.

This game is along the lines of Balderdash or Wise and Otherwise (which our family is more familiar with).  My sister-in-law brought it to our recent Christmas gathering.  The idea behind the game is that one person (or team, which is how we played it) picks a card and reads the title of a book and a summary of the plot.  The other people write down a possible opening line to the book.  The person who read the card writes down the actual opening line (which is printed on the card).  Then, that same person reads all of the lines.  Everyone gets to vote for which line they think is the correct line.  You get points for correctly guessing the opening line, or if someone votes for your line.

This is a fun game, but it was definitely more challenging than Wise and Otherwise, which we've done at previous family gatherings.  In Wise and Otherwise, the object is to correctly pick out the correct conclusion to an old proverb.  I hadn't realized how much harder it would be concoct an entire line than to simply complete a proverb.

The game is recommended for ages 12 and up.  Parents might want to use discretion even then.  Some of the first lines and plot summaries (I'm especially thinking in the romance category) might not be suitable for younger teenagers.

Life After Favre: A Season of Change with the Green Bay Packers and Their Fans

by Phil Hanrahan

Thumbs Up!

I'm assuming that the interest in this book isn't that high among readers of this blog.  Indulge me.

The 2008 season was very difficult for Packer fans.   The traumatic divorce between Brett Favre and Packers' management was painful enough.  But then, the team went 6-10.  Ugh. 

After going through some general Packer history, the author chronicles the team week by week.  In the process, he visits various fan sites throughout Wisconsin, as well as throughout the country.  He's able to give a decent portrayal of fan reaction to how the parting was handled, as well as where the fans feel the team is headed.

Life After Favre is a solid, even-handed portrayal of the 2008 season.  But it was hard to relive some of those tough losses.

Baking Cakes In Kigali

By Gaile Parkin

Thumbs Up!

This was a very satisfying, gentle read.  It takes place in present day Rwanda, in the aftermath of a great national genocide.  The AIDS epidemic runs throughout the background of the story as a continuing tragedy.

The main character, Angel, bakes cakes for all occasions.  As she takes their cake orders, she is able to get her customers to confide in her.  She helps where she can to make their lives better.  I definitely felt sympathetic toward Angel and most of the main characters.  It was amusing to read their view of some of the UN workers, CIA agents and others sent in to help them.

While it might seem that having some incredibly sad stories as a backdrop, this novel would be too depressing to be enjoyable, I think the opposite is true.  I found it very hopeful.  In spite of the fact that many of the characters had been through excruciating situations, now they are finding reasons to celebrate.  And eat cake.

Highly recommended.

Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking

by Stephanie O'Dea

Thumbs Up!

In 2008, O'Dea challenged herself to make a new crockpot recipe everyday for a year, and then to blog about it.  I discovered that blog about halfway through the year, and looked forward to each new recipe.  While some of the recipes weren't that different than one I already used, I appreciated the fact that she was willing to try a large variety of dishes.  There are appetizers, soups, side dishes, main dishes, desserts, fun stuff and more.  Oh, and they're gluten free.

This cookbook is mainly a compilation of recipes from her blog.  I had run off copies of many of those recipes already.  But, er, I'm not exactly the most organized person in the world.  For me, it's worth the convenience of  having the recipes all together in one book.  But, it's also nice to know that you can check out the recipes ahead of time and decide if it's worth it to spend the money on the book.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An Arsonists Guide to Writer's Homes in New England

by Brock Clark

Thumbs Down

What, you might ask, lead me to read a book of this title in the first place? You remember all those creative writing lessons throughout your school years during which the teacher stressed the importance of a good title? This book certainly has that. Once I saw the title, I had to find out if the story was as compelling as the title.

The story is a pathetically sad story about poor Sam Pulsifier and how in his bumbling life nothing goes right. I hate the term dysfunctional family, but the one from which Sam hales certainly qualifies. He really is not such a bad guy, but with a foundation and support system such as he had, there was not much hope for him.

There are some really good metaphors and very pleasingly written turns of speech scattered throughout. And yes, the characters are colorful and true to their natures. The plot is involved and convincing, in an off-beat sort of way.

But, oh, so sad.

You'll have to muddle through the book yourself if you want to know more.

Pride and Predator

by Sally Wright

Thumbs Up

No, this is not a novelization of the rumored Pride and Predator movie that's in the works. It's a good, old-fashioned, murder mystery. It's set in, I think, 1950s England/Scotland and features amateur sleuth, Ben Reese. If one likes this sort of thing, its a good, quick read.

The ending was a little bit of a disappointment. After all the twists and turns and subtlety of the characters throughout the book, the "tie up all the loose ends" part seemed kind of thrown out there. I don't really know how else to say it, but a really good author in the genre will allow his or her sleuth or criminal to tell you how the crime was committed and how it was discovered without losing the flow of the story. In this one, there was an unquantifiable something lacking.

It's part of a series. I liked it well enough I've requested the first one, Perish and Publish.