Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.

Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now. 

Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary.  Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.

Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?

In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job: 

"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.

Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother

San Diego is truly a wonderful city to live in. But if you've been here the past 5 years, then you know that San Diego was faced with a tragedy we as a city didn't want to admit could happen. Over the course of a year, two young, beautiful high schoolers went missing. And when one was later found murdered, it appeared there might be a serial killer stalking our most innocent and vulnerable citizens, our children.

Amber Dubios was a ninth grader at Escondido high school. Eager to get to school with a check in hand to buy a lamb through the school's FFA program, Amber set off to school but never made it. Her disappearance became a mystery that the city of Escondido couldn't get past.

Almost one year later, Poway high student Chelsea King went missing during her after school run at Lake Hodges. Her parents immediately reported her missing and an intensive search for Chelsea began. Although it was a missing person's case, the FBI and SD Sheriff's homicide became involved.

The search for Chelsea led to clues being unearthed that pointed the finger at one individual. Within months of Chelsea's disappearance, two of San Diego's most troubling cases were laid bare for not just the city, but the nation to see. Although things happened at lightning speed in those months (in terms of legal proceedings), understanding what really happened started decades before, with the birth of a single man, John Gardner.

This book was a hard one for me. It literally hit close to home for many reasons. I know exactly where these girls went to school and lived. I know many of the people involved in the investigation, particularly that of Chelsea King. In casual conversations with neighbors, someone might mention the King family. Although we are a city of over 1 million, sometimes it can feel like a small town. I also know that one of the last things Amber and Chelsea's parents probably want is for John Gardner to get any type of additional press. And this book is mostly about him. So there's a part of me that feels disloyal to these beautiful girls for reading Lost Girls. But what Rother brings to the table is something that you won't get from all the media and news reports. John's backstory is not well-known. And perhaps something can be learned from it.

Although a fascinating story for anyone to read, Lost Girls is a tough pill to swallow for many San Diegans. This book may or may not help you understand Gardner's actions. But Rother's careful, thorough retelling just might be the most comprehensive look at a side of this story that some people would rather ignore.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Black's Beach Shuffle by Corey Lynn Fayman

I had the opportunity to meet with Corey Fayman one afternoon. We sat at a small cafe in Little Italy and talked about books (duh)  and writing. I was interested in knowing how someone just *decides* to self-publish a book...or two. I was also curious about what, if anything, lay on the horizon for Rolly Waters.

Waters is a private investigator living in San Diego. When he's not searching down runaway teenagers or spying on cheating spouses, he's playing gigs at local events with his band. When his latest gig ends with a body floating in a pool, Waters finds himself involved in a case more far reaching than his usual PI repertoire.

If on its face this book is a whodunnit, at its heart it is a peek into Fayman's love of music and San Diego. It's clear Fayman lives in San Diego, based on details throughout the book, from where Waters drives to what he's eating at two in the morning. Being an SD native myself, I knew exactly who Waters was, his scene, and how he lived. The SD references are so detailed, I wondered at times if it would alienate some readers, but ultimately, it's something that makes Fayman's writing unique.

Fayman also doesn't hold back with the music references. Not only is he a San Diegan, but he's a musician as well, as is clear from his characters' hobbies to their names. If you're a music fan, you'll get a kick finding all the little eggs Fayman has hidden.

While mystery isn't really my genre of choice, the book was a quick read and kept me entertained. Extra bonus points for giving it an SD noir feel. Kinda unexpected. I think I'll give his second book, Border Field Blues, a try.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Smile by Jenny Matula

Okay, this is a tough one for me. Quite simply, I know the author and I'm not sure I can give this book a rave review. Despite this, the book is intriguing and evoked strong emotions in me. I'm just not sure they're the emotions the author was hoping to elicit.

Smile is the autobiography of Jenny Matula, who was raised in the Philippines. Because English is not her first language, the book is rife with grammatical errors. For me, it was endearing, because it simply reminded me of her. I think for others, however, it might just come across as poor editing (the book was actually self-published with minimal editing help through WestBow Press). If you're thinking a mistake here or there, like you're reading a self-published kindle book (or my blog), no, it's much worse.

If the grammar issues can be forgiven, well then you have to deal with the Jesus talk. Woah, woah! I'm not opposed to Jesus talk. Hell, I grew up going to church every Sunday. I even went on other days of the week voluntarily! I went on missions trips in other countries, memorized books (yes ENTIRE BOOKS) of the bible FOR FUN, and basically grew up doing churchy stuff all the time. I remember being on my way to Mexico for a week to do a vacation bible school with "Jesus Freak" blaring on the radio. Yes, instead of listening to Coolio, I was rocking to DC Talk because this gangsta's paradise isn't an earthly one. And until I get there, I'm gonna scream my way to Mexico for Jesus because I'm a JESUS FREAK.

So I've settled down since then.

I have retained many of my religious beliefs, but they've evolved since high school. And I don't attend church anymore. I think just by writing this, some of my old church friends might be concerned that I've fallen away, or backslidden (is that a word?  It is in church). Which is why writing this review is difficult. For many reasons.

But back to my point about the Jesus talk. There are portions of Jenny's narrative, especially in the very beginning, that are pretty much just verses from the Bible verbatum. Some people have speaking this way. I think for someone who is seeking comfort in the Bible, this can be beneficial. But I think to people who don't share the same views as she, it will be heavy-handed.  

After some introductory housekeeping points, Jenny goes into her life story, which is tough. Her parents divorced when she was young, which also separated her from two of her siblings. Also when she was young, her mother left her and her brother alone on a farm to work while she went to the city to work and save enough money to bring them with her. I don't know what age came to mind when I said "young" but Jenny was something like 7 and her brother even younger. That's annoyingly, dangerously, irresponsibly, flipping young. The farmer, who was an asshole, would visit them once a week and treated them horribly when he did. Are we surprised by this? I'm not. I'm more surprised that Jenny's mother didn't see this coming.

Eventually her mother came back but sent her and her brother to an orphanage, again, while she worked. It sounds like this was (is?) a somewhat normal thing to do over there. Again, Jenny was eventually reunited with her mother, who had since remarried. Jenny's stepfather abused her, and when she told her mother, the mother sided with the stepfather.  

Jenny's story continues with more trials, but also triumphs. She has a few stories that even gave me goosebumps. Her overall point being that through it all, God was with her and she was able to be strengthened through her adversity. I suppose the fact I am angered by her story means I'm missing the point entirely. Jenny was able to forgive and rise above her past. But there were too many things I read that completely disgusted me. Sure, she forgave her mother, but she also made excuses for her. And although her mother's actions may have been forgivable, they were definitely inexcusable.  

Maybe there are cultural differences at work here, but I also had a major problem with how often children were separated from parents. I don't understand why her parents split up siblings never to see each other again. Then there was the farm, the orphanage, and even Jenny herslef was separated from her own child as well. I just don't understand that.

So call me a heathen, a reprobate, or what you will. But I didn't respond well to Jenny's message. And it's hard for me to admit, because Jenny is such a genuine person. I don't want to take away from what she has to offer and the amazing ways God has worked in her life. Maybe I'm just not ready to hear her message. Maybe my heart has been hardened by the devil. Maybe I'm culturally insensitive. Whatever it is, this book was a pill swallowed with no water. While I'm happy she wrote it, as I'm sure her story will benefit others, it's just not for me, not now.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I reluctantly put this book on hold at the library more out of a sense of duty as a book blogger, rather than a real desire to read it. Much like my 9 year old niece's attitude to the Harry Potter series, I was reluctant to grab my board and join the wave of popularity that surrounded this book (my niece is totally wrong, by the way, but that doesn't mean I am).

I was something like 116th in line at the library. So I figured I wouldn't get my hands on it for at least 10 years. Since I'd heard so many good things about it, I was prepared to be disappointed by the hype anyway and felt I could afford to wait. But damn it if it didn't come just a few months later. Stupid public libraries with half decent book selections and somewhat plentiful stock.

The story is straightforward. Hazel has cancer and lives her life despite cancer's life interrupting side effects like exhaustion, hospital stays, oh, and death. In addition to the cancer, she deals with things like overly loving parents and support group, which she attends more for her parents' benefit than her own. At support group, she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor, and they soon become friends. Okay, they become more than friends eventually, but somehow the word "boyfriend" seems to cheapen their relationship.

Hazel introduces Augustus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by Peter van Houten. Hazel obsesses over the ending of the book, which follows a vein similar to The Sopranos' Finale. Hazel writes van Houten seeking answers to the fates of the book's characters. But her letters seem ignored, until Augustus writes van Houten...and gets a response.

I'd say more, but it really isn't the story itself that is the main draw for me with this book. It's the writing.  Green's narrative had me smiling from the first few pages. Hazel and Augustus are both smart, sharp, and funny. I liked seeing the world through Hazel's eyes, especially. I suppose even without the great writing, Hazel and Augustus' search for answers from van Houten was intriguing enough. But what brings this book from three stars to four is Green's fresh and fun writing.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Technology in Action by Evans, Martin, and Poatsy

Ummmmm...this is a textbook.  Wait!  Don't stop reading! Okay, okay, the textbook wasn't SO AWESOME I had to review it.  It was more like, "I'm reading this entire book for a class and damn right I'm gonna get credit on my CBR for it."  It kept me away from other books for EIGHT WEEKS for crying out loud.

It's not like I'm computer illiterate.  I grew up in a house that always had at least one computer.  I remember using DOS at my high school job as a telemarketer (not sure if that helps or hinders my argument here). And I sit at a computer hours a day at my job. But I haven't had any formal instruction on what a computer actually is and how it works.  And I know for a fact that (old lady voice commence) kids these days (end) are programming in elementary school (despite this, I still have a suspicion they couldn't program a remote control like the rest of us).

My tech naivete came to a head at Starbucks one morning.  The conversation somehow prompted me to declare, "hashtag TBT!"  I was really proud of myself for throwing down a popular twitterism, especially since I've tweeted all of zero times.  My friend called me out for using the hashtag incorrectly.  So we decided to ask the young, hip barista what it actually meant.  She settled the disagreement in my friend's favor and served me my short decaf in a tall cup.

Let's just jump into the review.

I took a beginning Computer Science class this summer and this is the textbook.  The book was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better than the class.  But don't get me started on that. TIA has chapters devoted entirely to things like computer hardware, the internet, software, programming, and networking.  If your eyes are already glazing over, it's probably fine if you have no interaction with computers, ever.  But you're reading this, so...

Basically, this book will help you understand how computers work, even how to purchase the right one.  You'll know the basic components of a computing system and learn how networks operate.  There is also really practical information on computer and internet safety and security.

So, while you probably won't go out and buy this book (because, duh! The Internet), I'm glad I read it.  It's raised my computer awareness from clueless to I-don't-remember-but-I-know-I-read-about-it-once-in-a-book.  I'll just contact Starbucks tech support for any other questions I might have.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mama's Boy: The True Story of A Serial Killer and His Mother by Richard Penciak

This is a book from my guilty pleasure genre: true crime.  It was a random pick from my work library (as it usually is).  While there are many things unique to the case of Eric Napoletano, I'm not sure it's the most interesting True Crime I've ever read.

Napoletano had a close relationship with his mother, Carolyn.  By close, I mean strangely close.  Eric and Carolyn spoke several times a day and argued like brother and sister.  When Eric was only 11, he met a 48-year-old man whom Carolyn was content to let Eric visit and eventually live with.  Although Carolyn didn't care for "Uncle Al," they had their unique devotion to Erin in common.

Carolyn never felt any of the women in his life were worthy of him.  Eric had a penchant for minority women, whom Carolyn despised and referred to with racial slurs.  She even refused to attend his weddings.  Eric's pattern with women would begin with infatuation and doting, and progress to isolation, abuse, and even death.  Because of Eric's close but antagonistic relationship with his mother, it's difficult to imagine she had no idea of the toxicity of his relationships.

In 1984, Eric's girlfriend Marilyn Coludro was found dead, having been stabbed several times.  About a year later, Eric had moved on and gotten married.  When things went sour in the marriage and his wife left him, his mother-in-law, Gladys Matos, was shot dead on a street corner.  And in 1990, when police came to Eric looking for his missing wife, Eric and his mother went to the station only to complain about the police harassing him.  Myra Acevedo was later found dead by strangulation.

It wasn't until Acevedo's murder, which fell under the jurisdiction of a New Jersey Detective, that Eric's past began to be scrutinized.  Although Eric lived in New York, which had previously investigated him, those efforts were hindered, in part by Carolyn, who worked for the New York City Police Department.  Her position enabled her access to Eric's investigation in which she abused her position.  Her questionable actions while working were either ignored or avoided by transferring Carolyn to other positions, still within the department.  Carolyn also provided alibis for Eric and even filed a complaint against a detective investigating the Matos murder.

Although seemingly cooperative at times, "Uncle Al" appeared to know more about Eric's relationships than he let on.  FBI wiretaps into Al's, Carolyn's, and Eric's phones was the first federal wiretap used in a serial homicide case.  The wiretaps were crucial in showing that not only was Eric a participant in these crimes, but so were his mother and "Uncle Al."  Although the degree of their involvement was never really made clear.

To make things more complicated, Eric had two sons.  One of whom, Eric Jr., was struggling with behavioral problems.  It seemed the parent-child cycle of dysfunctional behavior was repeating itself.  And based on the circumstances of Acevedo's murder, it was possible Eric's sons were potential witnesses to the events surrounding Myra's disappearance.

The story is interesting, but I think one of the most compelling aspects, Eric's relationship with his mother, wasn't fully realized.  Penciak used excerpts from interviews with Carolyn throughout the book which provided her chilling and infuriating perspective on Eric and his crimes.  But I wanted to know more about their dynamic, perhaps more antecdotes from when he was younger.  The narrative in general was also a bit bland.  But the story itself was interesting enough to keep me reading, although I'm ready to move on to another book.