Review: “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver

bigbrotherHaving grown up with the wish only to be left in peace and be unrecognized by the world, Pandora is now rather content with her life in Iowa. She lives with her husband and two step-children while running an unexpectedly successful business. But things change when she receives a call from one of her older brother’s friends, saying her brother Edison has been down on his luck and living off his friends for too long. Pandora decides, against her husband’s wishes, to allow Edison to live with her family for two months, but she receives a nasty shock when she sees him at the airport – the brother she has always looked up to has put on several hundred pounds. The subsequent two months (and beyond) put a strain on her marriage that makes Pandora think twice about what it means to be loyal to your family.

Several years ago I was introduced to Lionel Shriver when I read The Post-Birthday World, and I was struck immediately by the rawness of her work. Shriver doesn’t write beautiful, elegant prose or create heroic protagonists. She’s one of my favorite writers for a different reason. Her insight into the human psyche is uncanny and at times frankly embarrassing. She doesn’t sugarcoat the human condition or the average person’s emotions. Her protagonists’ thoughts can be shocking, but only until you realize that you’ve though the exact same thing, but would never admit it out loud. In her books, brother betrays sister, wife cheats on husband, and no one is ever truly sorry.

Big Brother is not a feel-good story. I haven’t read anything by Shriver that could be considered as such. Honestly, I’ve sometimes found her work hard to get through because of its brutality in depicting the average person (the best example being in We Need To Talk About Kevin). That being said, I always love reading her work and this book was no exception.

Read more about Big Brother on Goodreads.

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Review: “If Kennedy Lived” by Jeff Greenfield

kennedyIn an alternate world where Kennedy survived being shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, what would we see? Greenfield suggests we’d see a nation that chose not to engage in a war in Vietnam, but also a nation that did not pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What would be the benefits and drawbacks of this outcome?

The book starts off slowly and only really gets interesting once Greenfield starts discussing the run-up to the 1964 election. Kennedy is portrayed as over-confident and a bit of a snob (as Kennedys were often portrayed), but also as self-conscious and intently focused on his public image. The main obstacles to his second election were civil rights and the threat of nuclear war. He was able to overcome both and defeat his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, by a landslide. In reality, Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, also by a huge surplus. In this story, however, poor Lyndon Johnson is ignored and eventually cast off by everyone, doomed to become a passing reference in the textbook of American history.

There are those who talk about Kennedy as if he were god-like, and there are those who denigrate everything he did. Honestly, I haven’t read enough about his presidency to make a judgement about his politics and I don’t give a damn about what he did in his private life. Greenfield suggests that Kennedy would have focused on peace in Vietnam, and although this would be greatly beneficial to the American economy and morale, the focus on foreign policy would overshadow issues of race and equality within the nation, causing a different set of problems.

The lesson to take away from reading this book is that America will have problems no matter who is president. Some things may work out better, but may be to the detriment of other causes. I’m not one to dwell on what could have been, and so this will probably be the only alternate history I read in the course of my life. This one gets just a “meh” from me.

If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History by Jeff Greenfield will be available through Putnam Publishing on October 22nd, 2013.

The book can also be found on Amazon.

Stunning church converted into bookstore

Photo courtesy of Web Urbanist

Photo courtesy of Web Urbanist

A 15th-century church in the Netherlands was recently converted into a rather impressive bookstore containing thousands of books, as well as other retail items such as pens and stationary. If there are two kinds of buildings I love, they’re bookstores and old churches.

The bright and airy atmosphere makes it seem like the kind of place I could spend hours in, studying, reading, and discussing intelligent things with others. I’ve seen my share of European cathedrals, and while I think they’re all beautiful and worth seeing, I think I might enjoy this one even more than the others. I just wonder what would happen in America if a church-turned-bookstore started carrying copies of Fifty Shades of Grey or the Qu’ran…oh, the uproar among the highly religious.

Anyhow, there’s not much I can say about the bookstore that hasn’t already been said by Web Urbanist, so if you’re curious about it or just want to see more pictures (which I highly suggest), head over to their page.

Why can’t we have nice things like this in America??

Review: “Japan 1941” by Eri Hotta

japan1941

I often wondered during history class in middle and high school, “What did the other side think of this war?” Americans frequently are restricted to being taught only about their own side of a war, which puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding our world. It is for this reason that I truly appreciated reading Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.

The book puts into perspective Japanese culture and politics in the years and months leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In particular, it investigates the question of why Japan’s leaders entered into a conflict they knew they had no chance of winning. Through reading the book I was able to learn something about Japanese politics and how Japan’s admiration for the United States began to turn sour in the first part of the twentieth century.

Hotta is not forgiving toward her country for its actions before or after the bombing. She recognizes the mistakes that were made by Japan’s leaders due to arrogance or ignorance (or often both), and reveals how the Japanese people were fooled by their leaders into believing their country was more powerful and capable than it really was. She refers often to Japan’s “self-delusion” and “face-saving” tactics, which only exacerbated the country’s political problems.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble sometimes staying focused on a book about history that includes so many names, dates, and places. However, in the front of the book you’ll find a map of the Asia-Pacific Region in 1941, as well as a list and description of major characters and a timeline of events in Japanese history from 1853 through April 1941. These references made the book much easier to comprehend.

Hotta’s book is a valuable new perspective in the history of World War II, and is a great read for anyone interested in the war, Japanese politics, or Asian culture and history.

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy will be published by Knopf Publishing on October 29th, 2013. You can find it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Review: “The Convert” by Deborah Baker

theconvert In 1962, Margaret Marcus left her family in New York to start a  new life in Pakistan under the new name of Maryam Jameelah.  She was raised in a mostly secular Jewish household, but from a  very young age she took an interest in the affairs of the Arab  people and their relationship with the Jewish people. At the age  of approximately 15, she wrote the following regarding the  newly founded state of Israel, which I found so sadly naive:

“I am convinced that the Jews and Arabs will cooperate and together create a new golden age such as occurred in medieval Spain. Under Arab protection from Christian persecution, Jews will become real Jews and their lives will once again be filled with meaning.”

Over time she became disillusioned with her secular life and felt great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Eventually, she converted to Islam and moved to Pakistan to live with her adoptive father and new guardian, a well-known Muslim intellectual and promoter of Sharia law and an Islamic state. However, what seems at first to be her dream come true quickly falls apart, giving the book it’s subtitle, A Tale of Exile and Extremism.

Margaret’s story is told as a collage of her letters sent to her parents and other various correspondences (often adapted or rewritten by Baker), and includes Baker’s own interpretation of Margaret’s life. Baker relates how she came across Margaret’s letters and how she was subsequently drawn into the life of this American Jew-turned-Muslim. Throughout, Baker’s bias is very clear. She sees Margaret as being arrogant and haughty in her preaching of the evils of Western culture. However, even without Baker’s commentary I would probably have come to this conclusion myself. I find Margaret’s tone insufferable at times.

That being said, the book is extremely readable and informative. Through Margaret’s letters and Baker’s research, the reader is able to get a glimpse into the mindset behind Islamic acts of terror and see just how those extremists have come to view the Western world.

Definitely one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

Find it here:

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

Review: “Hear the Wind Sing” (The Rat #1) by Haruki Murakami

I know I read and review a lot of Murakami’s novels (this is the 8th book of his that I’ve read). I picked this one up because I read somewhere that it was never printed in English outside of Japan. It’s also the first novel Murakami wrote (it was published in 1979), and the epub edition is only 57 pages long. I saw no reason not to read it considering it wasn’t much of an investment, and the other book I’m reading is taking a while.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book. It failed to engage me as most of his other books have done. I’ll pass that off as part of the learning process for a young writer. Other than that, I suppose I don’t have much to complain about. While the book did not engage me, I still found that I could connect at least a little bit with the characters; they’re the same dispirited, slightly depressed, lost people that I find in Murakami’s other works, and they fit me perfectly.

The book is organized in a strange way, in that it jumps time periods and in general is just a little abstract (though not as abstract as, say, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). There were no elements of the supernatural in it, which I enjoyed.

One thing about Murakami’s writing that I especially like is his habit of throwing in non sequiturs that often don’t seem to have any relevance to the story (and often don’t). But they can be amusing and offer insight into a character. For example, in Hear the Wind Sing, the protagonist says of one character:

The Rat’s favorite food was pancakes. He’d pile a bunch of them up on a deep plate and cut them neatly into four sections, then pour a bottle of Coca Cola on top of them.

Does this contribute anything to the story as a whole? Probably not, but it does tell us something about the Rat, and it is amusing.

All in all, I think the book is worth reading if you’re already a fan of Murakami or want a quick introduction to him. If not, there are better things out there.

Find Hear the Wind Sing on Goodreads.

What makes a great bookstore?

While browsing my Twitter feed, I came across an article from Afar magazine’s website titled “Fred Dust’s Favorite Bookstores Around the World” (notice it’s Fred Dust, not Fred Durst, in case you were concerned). Afar is my all-time favorite travel magazine, and so I trust its content. However, I was fairly disappointed by what I found in the article. I don’t agree at all with the standards by which Fred Dust chose his favorite bookstores. And so I thought about it for a while and selected three factors that make a bookstore great (in my humble opinion).

They are as follows:

1. Comfy chairs for reading

When I was in high school, I used to spend a good amount of time at the Barnes & Noble near my parents’ house. I would go there to study or just to read. They had great chairs that I could curl up in and read for hours. But after a few years, much to my disappointment, the chairs disappeared and were replaced by a couple hard wooden chairs. My best guess is that they did this to prevent customers from reading the books without buying them, thus rendering the books unfit to be sold at all. This is understandable, though it’s sad that now no one can take advantage of a comfortable place to sit and read books they already own…

2. Large desks for studying or discussion

Like I mentioned before, I used to spend a lot of time studying at my local Barnes & Noble, At that time there were long desks available, so that customers could set up their computers to work for a while. The desks could also be used for groups to discuss books if they wanted to. When I took summer classes during high school I would sometimes go there with my classmates to work on homework together. Having the desks was also a great way to bring revenue to the coffee shop inside the bookstore. As far as I know the desks are still there, though maybe they’ve gone the way of the comfy chairs since last time I was there.

3. Organization that’s easy to identify

There’s nothing more annoying to me than trying to find a book in a store that’s not organized efficiently. As an example, I’ll use the Foreign Language Bookstore here in Shanghai. All the books in English are divided into three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and books about China. What makes matters even worse is that the books are arranged by the author’s first name instead of last name. Talk about maddening.  Maybe this is an extreme example, but you get the idea.

I chose these three factors in particular because they can be applied to both new and used bookstores. If I were choosing factors that apply to one or the other, the list may be a bit different.

Feel free to comment with your own ideas of what makes a great bookstore!

Also, I’d love if you’d add me on Twitter 🙂