Saturday, April 5, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you live under a rock, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of a Smith College grad who spent her post-college days experimenting with lesbianism and drug trafficking.  Okay, to be fair, she might have been more grounded in the former than the latter, but it's not really clear from the book.  Watch the Netfiix series, though, and you'll get waaaaaaay more lesbionic love scenes than the source material proffers.

But that's not to say you should skip the book!  OITNB (get with it) is part cautionary tale, part WTF, and part commentary against the U.S. federal prison system.

Imagine you are young, spontaneous, not sure of the next step in life.  You come from a good family, you have a great education, and your girlfriend lives a life that takes her to exotic locations and pays well.  Okay, better than well.  Turns out her sister's boyfriend is a major player in the drug trade.  Eventually simply accompanying her on business trips becomes traveling with a suitcase full of drug money.  Slope slipped.  But before Kerman gets too far down, she breaks free, cuts her ties, and moves across the country.  Crisis averted.

Until five years later, when the feds come knocking at her door.  Shiznit.

This book is less about Kerman, however, and more about the federal women's prison in Danbury, CT and its other inhabitants.  Through Kerman's experience, we glimpse the daily routine, the programs (or lack thereof), the food, and the ad-hoc families that make up day to day life at Danbury.  She details the tragedy that is a part of everyday life in prison, as well as the triumphs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the lack of sheer terror and violence I guess I was expecting Kerman to experience.  Again, that's not to say you should skip the book!

I was amazed at how people made do with their circumstances and each other.  Somewhat parodoxically, my eyes were opened to the great equalizer that prison could be.  Kerman was able to show how women from so many walks of life could coexist and foster meaningful relationships.  And you'll learn a lot of really random things, like how to make cheesecake with a microwave and laughing cow cheese, and how to clean a ceiling with tampons.  Sign me up!

I've already mentioned that the Netflix series is different from the book, but in a lot of ways, it is remarkably similar too.  Yeah, Crazy Eyes doesn't pee on Kerman's floor in the book, but she does mention a woman she calls Crazy Eyes, another who tried wooing her, and a peeing incident.  And there might not be a whole backstory on a guard and an inmate who have an affair, but Kerman describes how one guard, suspecting impropriety, caused an inmate to go to solitary, and the guard in question quitting.

But you should do more than just read this book and watch the series.  And that's one way I know I've read an intriguing book, when I want to google the author and learn more.  Because Orange is the New Black is more than *just* a memoir.  It's a commentary, and hopefully by reading it, you'll be more than just entertained.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I saw a neurologist once.  I was feeling increasingly confused, forgetful, and mentally disheveled.  I would find myself driving on the freeway and suddenly not know where I was or where I was going.  I would walk into a co-worker's office only to forget why I was there.  I'd read a book or watch a movie and not remember what it was about.  The neurologist gave me a handful of tests, during which I quickly realized, I'm definintely not crazy.  I knew my name, what year it was, and could easily draw the face of a clock on a sheet of paper.  Given the timing of my symptoms with the recent birth of my son, I was diagnosed with nothing more than mommy brain.

A bit embarrased, but definitely relieved, I laugh about my bought of hypochondria.  At the time though, I thought I was losing it.  And that's what happened to Susannah Cahalan.  She slowly started noticing little things that were unlike her...a jealous thought, a migraine, sensitivity to lights.  She even went to the doctor and had an MRI and blood tests.  Everything came back normal.  Maybe she was stressed.  Maybe she was about to have a breakdown.  Maybe, as one doctor believed, she just partied too much.

But when her symptoms went from bad to worse and she had a series of seizures, Cahalan had the doctors' attention.  Still, all the tests came back negative.  Her symptoms, which appeared similar to schizophrenia, took her down a month-long rabbit hole of madness, most of which, she has no memory.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan's descent into madness and her climb back out.  As it turns out, it was a simple test, in fact one of the same ones I was given on my panicked visit to the doctor, that led to Cahalan's diagnosis.  Cahalan relied on interviews with her family, doctors, and her own fragmented memory to reconstruct the events during her illness.

If this doesn't sound compelling enough, Cahalan takes you deeper.  You'll learn about monstrous tumors complete with hair and teeth that inhabit otherwise normal people, and even delve into the supernatural to see how her symptoms are eerily similar to people believed to be possessed with evil spirits.

Given Cahalan's occupation as a journalist and the fascinating subject matter, this is a book you won't want to put down.  And given that it's a true story, you won't soon take your sanity for granted. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This book was a CBR recommendation and I wasn't disappointed.  In fact, I'm calling it now as one of my top five books for the year.

Nothing to Envy is based on the lives of North Korean defectors, whom Demick reported on extensively during her time working as the Los Angeles Times Bureau chief in Korea.  Her book focuses on six individuals, all from Chongjin.  It is beautifully written, at times reading like a fictional novel rather than a journalistic work of non-fiction.  Sadly, but intriguingly, the book also read like a YA dystopian drama when Demick described the facts of life that are socialism in North Korea.

From her descriptions of the rationing of food and electricity to the requirement that citizens must apply for travel permits even to travel within the county, I realized how truly naive I was about other parts of the world, for I couldn't fathom a society quite like she described.  Demick describes buildings with elevator shafts build into them, but no elevators; cities outfitted for electricity that went unused all but a few hours of the day; sporadically run railroad lines; empty factories; and employees who worked unpaid, but for the promise of additional rations, when they became available.

NASA image of the Korean peninsula.
Reading about the capital city, Pyongyang, was reminiscent of reading about the Capitol City of Panem in the Hunger Games.  Only the elite were allowed to live and study in Pyongyang.  They received more food and electricity than others elsewhere.  This is also where foreigners visited, so the regime went to "great length to ensure that its inhabitants make a good impression with their appearance and are ideologically sound."  Demick herself felt that when she visited as a journalist, people would be placed in certain areas and in certain outfits to create a false idealistic image of the country.

Demick gives antecdotes here and there that are at times hilarious and disturbing.  One of my favorites is her description of typical math word problems.  "Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers.  How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?"  Or one of the songs taught in music class...

"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them.  BANG, BANG, BANG."

And the propoganda.  Oh the propoganda.  The posters throughout the country with the smiling face of Kim Il-Sung, the public address systems installed in buildings for government announcements, the people hired to drive through the streets announcing how well companies were doing and how hard everyone should work.  Citizens not only worked for the state at day jobs, they also attended ideological training before and after work.  It was exhausting just to read about.

Then there were the community groups and meetings...each person was a member of their neighborhood inminban.  This was basically a system whereby neighbors looked out for criminal activity or political disobedience.  Even a quick, sarcastic comment could sentence a person to a prison labor camp.  No one dared speak ill of the government for fear that an overly zealous neighbor would report them.  This bred a culture in which people would say and do things for no reason other than to give the impression that they are law abiding, loyal citizens.  Demick writes about people who would add things to letters to show how much they loved their country and the "Supreme Leader" for the sake of the government censors.

Demick also details the mass hysteria that gripped the country when Kim Il-sung died.  Some people were truly hysterical.  But for those who had doubts, they knew that if they didn't show the "appropriate" response to his death, it could mean time in a prison camp.  So even those who defected, who were disullusioned with the country's politics, found themselves crying tears for a man they didn't respect.

Of course, Demick covers the famine of the 90's, where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens (if not millions) died of starvation.  The country's leaders had campaigns like the "Let's eat two meals a day" campaign early in the food shortage.  Enrollment in school dropped precipitously as children died of starvation.  By 1995 the frog population of North Korea was wiped out due to overhunting.  Families took to fields and forests to gather weeds and moss and learned to cook indigestible food longer to make it more palatable.

Demick chronicles the lives of six individuals, all from the same city, but with a spectrum of background stories.  There is Mrs. Song, a true believer of the Juche self-reliance ideology and occasional leader of her inminban.  Mrs. Song religiously polished her state-issued pictures of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il with the state-issued polishing cloth (not making this up).  We also learn about Oak Hee, Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter.  Perhaps my favorite story line was that of Mi-ran and Jun-sang, secret sweethearts who could never get married because of the "sins" of Mi-ran's father's past.  His role in the South Korean army during the Korean war gave his family bad songbun, or social status, that lasted three generations.  There is also Kim Hyuck, an orphan whose actions were motivated by hunger, rather than state loyalty, and Dr. Kim, who learned after defecting that dogs in china ate better than doctors in North Korea.  Through Dr. Kim, Demick describes the effects the food shortage of the 90's on the North Korean citizens.  Pellagra, acute constipation, and stunted growth, among other ailments afflicted her patients.  The hospital also suffered, no longer offering heat or even IV bags to its patients, who would bring empty bottles of beer in which to put the fluid.

From these individuals, we see orphanages, black markets, schools, hospitals, and the day to day lives of a varied cross section of North Koreans.  Demick gives us a general history of the politics and demography of Korea, she describes the indoctination of the Juche ideology so well that we, in a small way, understand the motivations of the individuals when they eat while children around them starve.  Or when they fear for their futures when they can't shed a tear over Kim Il-sung's death.  Or when they make the life-changing decision to leave North Korea forever.

Nothing to Envy is about more than you think.  It's not just a retelling of the strange and infuriating things about North Korea that make us glad to be Americans.  It's also about the pride of the North Korean people, many who truly believe they have nothing to envy from the rest of the world.  It's this second thing that is harder to grasp, but perhaps by reading this book, you'll be a step closer to understanding it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dark Moonlighting by Scott Haworth

Hmmm....everything about this book makes me want to like it.  The premise, the satire, the author, and a lot of reviews I skimmed on Goodreads.  But I just can't bring myself to the level of enthusiasm of these other reviewers.

Dark Moonlighting is the first of a four novel series.  It's about Nick, a 600 year old vampire doctor-lawyer-police officer (needing only 2 hours of sleep a night, Nick has plenty of time to work) .  No, Nick isn't sexy, he doesn't glow in the sunlight, and he doesn't live on synthetic blood.  He has a virus that drives him to kill about one person a week, drinking their blood and then urinating profusely after each kill.  If you calculate the "Urinator's" body count, this comes to around 30,000 souls.  But don't fret, Nick doesn't kill innocent people.  A vampiric Dexter of sorts, he rids society of its scum, which, in this day and age, includes dreaded spammers and door to door evangelists.

Some of the reviews I've read have hailed the book for its departure from the popular vampire genre.  Reviewers are thrilled with a vampire who doesn't take himself too seriously.  While these things may be true, it doesn't automatically mean the book is good.  Are we so disullusioned with Twilight and True Blood that we'll bed the first ugly vampire to wink at us?

The problem I have is with the writing.  Yes, Dark Moonlighting is tongue in cheek and bleeding with satire and pop culture references, but despite this, the jokes flatlined for me.  I kept getting the feeling I was reading something a junior high schooler wrote.  There was no subletly to the humor, instead, the jokes were obvious and overexplained.  Who knows, maybe that's part of what makes it funny and I'm just not getting it, but I couldn't get over the amateur feel the writing had.  Haworth has a lot of good ideas, he just didn't execute them to my liking.

I can't completely write the book off, as it had its moments and was a quick, easy read.  But I won't be rushing to complete this tetralogy any time soon.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool is one of those futuristic, dystopian, post-apocolytpic, insert your own buzzword here, type books that I'm sure is packaged as a three-book series...(checking internets)...yep, it's called the Silo Series and also includes the novels Shift and Dust.  Despite my sarcasm, this was a book I couldn't set down many times.

The novel started as a short story that was released by Amazon for the Kindle in 2011.  Due to its popularity, Howey continued writing and amassed a three book collection in two years.  Basically society exists in an underground silo because the air outside is too toxic to breathe.  The chapters are written almost in a Game of Thrones style where a grouping of chapters is from the perspective of a different character.  The first few chapters were so intriguing to me that I feared I wouldn't like the format because I didn't want to move on to another person's story....much like you don't want to break up with someone you are comfortable with, I guess.  However, Howey is the best friend who helps you realize it's for the better.  I found myself happy to move on each time because his different characters are equally compelling.

Which brings me to my next point, it kinda sucks when he kills the ones you like.  But as we learned from G.R.R. Martin, that can be quite a beneficial plot device.

Of course the story isn't confined to the silos and its inhabitants.  There is, of course, a great conspiracy involved and the question of life outside of the silo is explored.

And, like any popular book, there is a movie in the making.  Ridley Scott is on board for this one.  I am cautiously optimistic.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

My motivation for reading this book was to get it off my shelf and back on my neighbor's, who had lent it to me months before.  Coupled with the fact that she also brought me a plate of pure sex for Christmas (no one makes better cookies than her), I was beginning to feel like a really lousy neighbor.  "But my dog ocassionally tears into your yard, screaming for Kiki the Poodle to come out" I want to scream (let's ignore the fact that he probably doesn't want to play with her).  That's neighborly, right?  Okay, maybe I have some work to do.  Well, at least I can return her book now.

The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily, a 14 year old girl, growing up in the South in the 60's.  She finds herself in Tiburon, South Carolina, after having run away with her nanny Rosaleen from an unloving father.  Lily believes that Tiburon holds the clues to her mother's past, something Lily's memories and her father have revealed little about.  In Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by the Boatwright sisters, a beekeeping trio with an eclectic lifestyle.

Oh, and Rosaleen and the Boatwrights are all black.  Why does this matter?  Well, the setting is 1964 and President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act.  Lily isn't the only one running away, Rosaleen is also escaping some trouble she got into on her way to register to vote.  If the fact that Lily is living with four Aftican American women isn't enough to turn heads (and it is), Rosaleen's legal trouble is.

What I like about this book is that there is a lot of potential for drama, given the year, the location, and the character's themselves.  It was this potential that made me uneasy about a lot of things while I was reading.  But Kidd has a nice balance of good and bad.  She doesn't capitalize on all the possible (and sometimes obvious) storylines.

Her characters, although I felt not fully fleshed out, were memorable.  She created a unique world that existed in the Boatwright's pink house, complete with their own livelihood and religion.  Her descriptions of life at their home, the daily work, the church services, the celebrations, and the trials, made me want to be right there while everything happened.

Turns out, a movie was made in 2008 with Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys.  I would never have been interested in this movie if I hadn't first read the book.  Now, I think I'll actually see it.  I'd love to see Kidd's characters come to life on the screen.

So in all, a strong book.  A bit of a girl power vibe, but I'm a girl and don't mind that kind of thing (every now and then).  It wasn't a life-changing book, but a well-told story.  Something I might recommend to, say a neighbor, for a *quick* summer read.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

We all know that once you see something, it's not only burned into your retina, but also your mind.  And by trying to not imagine a pink elephant, what the first thing is that comes to mind.  Is it also possible then, that once I know a book is written by J. K. Rowling, I will always compare it to Harry Potter?

The answer is fuck yes.  EVERYTHING gets compared to Harry Potter.  All other YA books I've read?  Not as good as Harry Potter.  The coffee I had this morning?  Not as good as Harry Potter.  That dress I want to buy?  Won't make my hips look as good as Harry Potter.  You get the point.  That series has been burned into my mind, heart, and soul.  I cannot and will not unremember it.  Does Rowling even stand a chance against herself?

Maybe she knew the answer...maybe she anticipated this inevitable proclivity which we all have.  And maybe that's why she wrote The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym.  Because she knew assholes like me would never forgive her for writing *just* another novel.  I think her prologue says it all, "Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous."  Freudian slip of the pen much?

So how to proceed now that I've compromised any semblance of neutrality?  I'll just get on with it.  I didn't find the story compelling,  I didn't like the characters, and I didn't buy the ending.  This was a book I read for the sake of finishing, so I could move on to another book.

My first complaint, her characters.  Mean, selfish, or boooooring.  Sure, some people are pricks, but really?  THAT many people?  Everyone we meet, even our protagonist, is a prick.  His sister?  A prick.  His client?  A prick.  Everyone else in the book?  Pricks.  Every one.  I wanted to avada kedavra all their asses.  The only character I wouldn't call a prick is Robin, our detective's wingman secretary (her fiance though?  You guessed it).  The problem with Robin was she's as interesting as a Kardashian sex tape.

Another complaint is the ending.  I felt like Rowling left some loose ends unaddressed.  And the only reason I was surprised by the ending is because it just didn't make sense.  Sure, she offered a one sentence explanation, but I don't buy it.  I also don't feel her trail of bread crumbs would have led many readers to the right conclusion without a lot of blind speculation.  But then again, I'm not a detective like Cormoran Strike.  And then again, Rowling's only an author, (sniff).

To be fair, murder mysteries aren't my genre of choice.  True, I went into it with high expectations, which can be a buzzkill for even above average performances.  But really, I think a great story can rise above its genre, or age group, or expectations.  Isn't that what we loved about...well, you know.