Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a keeper. I have consumed so many books in the past two years on mastering habits, closing in on one dozen, now. This ranks up there with Duhigg's, The Power of Habit, and with McGonigal's, The Willpower Instinct. This book takes a friendly approach to the topic, relying less on cataloguing and clarifying the scientific studies.

Ms. Rubin sounds like a comrade. Her style is so relatable. We get acquainted with her friends, her family, her neighbors! Even if you feel like a total failure and cannot manage to rein in your impulses, this warm-read will help you dust off your determination. Her writing is so cheerful, it is hard not to feel buoyant.

I enjoyed her categorization theory - like, are you a questioner, an upholder, an obliger or a rebel? This is a useful tool. I also liked the "pairing device" for getting things done. I have used it myself many times over the years, but never had a name for it.

I'll be reading more Gretchen Rubin, that's for sure!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Our Town

Our Town Our Town by Thornton Wilder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eh.....I guess I like my spartan, minimalism to be presented on a wall in a frame rather than on the pages of a play. No, I did not see it performed - my bad - I merely read it. Underwhelmed. I'll give the Bridge of San Luis Rey a shot next before concluding what I think about Wilder, more generally. Comparing this to plays by Miller or O'Neill, for example, it just lacks a punch.

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Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked the organization of this book. Cahill first summarizes the fall of Rome and what it was that was lost. This is critically important in calibrating the remarkable achievement of the Irish monks, because what was saved was a tradition of rigorous thought. (Who knew that "google-thinking" would bury this tradition, perhaps forever....but I digress.)
Cahill starts out Augustine-centric, then Patrick-centric. I did not mind this much as I needed the whirligig tour of Irish history and liked the way he served it up. (NOT boring)
It is a gem of a book!

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Review: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a perfect motivational book for those who do not have the patience or interest in following the current science behind how the brain works. It is a rehash of many other books I have read in the past two years, but what I liked about this one was its 'summary' approach. Chapter 12 is especially useful for anyone who can't seem to get started on a project or goal. My favorite quote from this book, and, possibly my most favorite quote ever (!) ...."In this life our purpose should not be to find ourselves, our purpose should be to create ourselves."

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Review: Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life

Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life by Alan Deutschman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a book. Its title is hokey but don't let that thwart a focused reading. You won't regret one minute. The author has a gift. The stories he tells, like blunt instruments, deliver potent truths which cannot be discounted. He grants his readers clarifying moments - one after another - from start to finish, and often I found my heart was pounding with excitement as I imagined using the nuggets of knowledge he put forth. I look forward to reading it all over again.

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Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If there were a choice, I would have given this a 2.5 not a 3.

It is a perfect beach read although the pace is bit slow.

The story - very engaging. An impressive 'who done it' format. The story is why I gave it any points at all.

The writing - well, it was slightly better than reading a 14 year old girl's text message history over a period of a few days. The language was banal. I did not want to put it down, though ..... so there's that.



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Review: The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an excellent, detailed account of the tragic politics in recently Anglicized Ireland and it gave the first even-handed description of the perfect storm of circumstances that led to one out of every three Irish dying of starvation. However, the author was non-linear in his approach. For those of us with a tenuous grasp on the 17th through 19th century history of the Isles .... following him was arduous, at best.

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Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This most excellent epistolary novel has long been on my NeedToRead list. Definitely worth the wait!

If I had recently lost at the game of love, or if I were forlorn or woebegone in any way, well, I'd burn every copy of this book I could find. Goethe so deftly expresses the torment of unrequited love; it is truly distressing to read through the devolution of Werther's mind and spirit. Yet, isn't it impossible not to turn the next page, when you know that a masterpiece is unfolding? Goethe made art out of agony.

Not a book for the heart-broken. Consider yourself warned.

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Review: East of Eden

East of Eden East of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A remarkable epic, which like Cannery Row and a few others, sticks to a rather self-conscious tug of war between good and evil. Sometimes savage and sometimes sheepheaded, Steinbeck sets the stage for a saga worthy of a summer read. Although the props on this stage get a tad tiresome and predictable, there is not a poorly constructed image to be found in any collection of words on any page. As in Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, his politics are barely veiled and that irritated me off and on. My greatest take-aways from East of Eden: ng-ka-py and Timshel ! I am very glad I have finally read this gem of a book.

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Review: Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lively's vast knowledge of history is made evident throughout this remarkable story and this expertise she flawlessly weaves into Claudia's life; it's a real bonus!

I loved the story, because I loved Claudia. Everything about her - the fact that she lived for herself, the fact that she did not care about the rules (a bigger deal in the 1950's), and the fact that she had a razor-sharp mind.....all were so mightily impressive.

Ms. Lively's writing surpasses so many others and I've already begun a second book by her. She has an unusual gift. However, I did get frustrated with the mental gymnastics required of me, the reader, to know where we were on the Claudia-calendar. Because this book is being told by the somewhat geriatric (but NEVER feeble) Claudia from her sick-bed, and because it is auto-biographical (although fiction), the author has the added task of making sure her reader knows where we are in Claudia's life. Not much effort is put into those transitions. I did get frustrated. Through presomnal and postsomnal states, our central character told about the events of her life. The sensation captured was that of hypnagogic reverie. This worked. I just think that Lively needed to add a layer of lucidity for her reader.

Great book!


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Review: Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation

Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation by Tom Plate
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lee Kuan Yew says things out loud that no American dare say. He's an authoritarian - it is his way or the highway - yet he makes SO MUCH SENSE. Many years ago, he predicted the direction in which America is now headed. He explains clearly the idea of American excellence and understands it better than the bulk of Americans. He also explains why American excellence is dead and/or dying. He detests laziness and he is an inveterate capitalist. His views would never go over well in a pure democracy, much less the democratic republic to which we now cling pointlessly.

It is Lee Kuan Yew's analysis of the system through which we elect our officials that is most compelling.

For any individual who wants to take a hard look at America, not from within its borders, but from the eyes of a tremendously successful authoritarian, this is a very worthy read. LKY is not perfect. He he is old, he is now retired (to the title Minister Mentor Yew) in Singapore, and he just doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. So, he speaks plainly and Lord knows the world needs more of that!!!

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Review: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book for one of my kids but ended up reading it myself. It is essentially a journal (a solidly well-written journal) of one man's hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. I started out with a "not particularly interested in this" feeling but quickly found myself fully invested in this man's determination to do the AT. The injuries, the oddballs encountered along the way, the AT culture and economy - these were all thought-provoking. However, the daily debates in the life of the mind in which he is consumed when he is fighting with himself over whether he should (for example) do that extra 3 miles or pitch a tent....this was gripping. If you have goals, if you are trying hard to achieve something which is tough and which makes you weary to the bone, then you know this mental battle, too. There is a voice telling you to quit and a voice telling you to look for solutions and carry on. This book will definitely inspire you to go the distance!

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Review: The World According to Garp

The World According to Garp The World According to Garp by John Irving
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The word "vainglorious" ran through my mind many times while reading this. It was so purposefully weird, slapdash, and unruly that I had the distinct impression that I was watching a cheeky stunt. A cheeky and almost sci-fi stunt .... on paper.

How indecent and purposeless and unholy can I make life seem, Irving must have muttered to himself, when he set out to write this. Honestly, even in the theater of the absurd, you come across at least one person who is not a defeated pagan. I think Irving has a fetish with the sad, half-souled, flunkees in this world.

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Review: The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is appropriate that today, after the announcement of Britain's departure from the European Union, I finally finished Hayek's book, the last chapter of which is named "The Prospects of International Order." Although he did see the European Union coming (this book was first published in the late 1940's), and although he castigates what we now call Eurosocialism, he could not have foreseen this development. After all I learned reading this book, I do think he would agree with the outcome, scary though it be.

Reading this book gave me great perspective on where the boundaries should be drawn on collectivism and it renewed my interest in the great strength gained by decentralized groups. I wonder what Nassim Taleb would say about this - he teaches us how strength comes from randomness and disorder in his books Anti-Fragile and The Black Swan.

In medieval times, a serf worked (for his lord) 3 days out of the 7 day week. Today, if you add up all of the taxes you pay, you are working much more than 3 days out of 7 for your czar. It makes one wonder if progress should be defined not only by the development of antibiotics, iPhones, and painkillers but by more sobering and less romantic notions like taxes.

My absolute favorite quote from this book (which I am bound to re-read and study in the years to come):

“Probably it is true enough that the great majority are rarely capable of thinking independently, that on most questions they accept views which they find ready-made, and that they will be equally content if born or coaxed into one set of beliefs or another. In any society freedom of thought will probably be of direct significance only for a small minority. But this does not mean that anyone is competent, or ought to have power, to select those to whom this freedom is to be reserved. It certainly does not justify the presumption of any group of people to claim the right to determine what people ought to think or believe.”

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Review: The Gravity of Birds

The Gravity of Birds The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thanks to my reading group, I have once again been blessed by reading a book that, otherwise, I never would have bothered with.

I learned about birds and I learned about the world of art - two things that are not featured prominently in my day-by-day. This book awakened a deep interest in both.

It has so much to offer - betrayal, upended lives, family secrets and redemption. The unusual illness of one of the key characters lends a very distinct backdrop to the drama and mystery.

If you read it you will be glad you did!

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Review: Great Expectations

Great Expectations Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"He says no varnish can hide the grain of wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself."

This book was on my must-read list for such a long time. And now I want to read it again.

Reading Dickens is like returning briefly - while in the midst of life's great chaos - to the only things in life that actually matter. But so much truth... so much truth smarts a bit. The bard was right: Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines.

This will go back on the list because I still have so much to draw from it. Pip, Miss Havisham, Herbert, dear old Joe, Mrs. Joe (!), Magwitch, all of them ~ I need to hear it all from them again. Just one more time, I think .....

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Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For all of those on this planet who have never known real poverty, reading this book will help paint the picture for you. This wonderfully sad, charming and triumphant slice of America packs a punch.
Readers over the age of 50 will see the shadows of ethnic tensions they lived with as children.
In the early 20th century, Americans fought a darkness much different that the one we fight now. And they mostly fought it with empty bellies. I loved the people in this story, especially Francie and her dad.

The book breathed new hope into my fears for the future of America.

Really....friends.....ya gotta read this book.

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Review: The Life of π

The Life of π The Life of π by Jason Shaverin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A most unusual read. It departs from the conventional shape of most modern fiction because it is not sci-fi yet it demands the reader park her sensibilities throughout.

Clever readers know how to relax and enjoy a good yarn, right? They don't insist that the author support every twist and turn. If you are going to enjoy this book, don't ask why or how too often.

I think the author had a great time writing this tale and that he called upon his "wounded inner 11 year old storyteller" often.

It was fun, sad, and quirky. I kept thinking as I read on ...."Well, isn't this author a good sport to use this crazy quilt of a tale to deliver his message..."

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Review: The Good Earth

The Good Earth The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finished this, I wanted to have an O-Lan party to honor this superb character. Without her I would have had no one to hail and root for through this vivid, meandering saga.

It is set in a poor Chinese village before World War I. Through it the reader is reminded of inequities such that he or she will surely never encounter in a lifetime.

Pearl Buck’s use of simple declarative sentences creates a fable-like comfort in the reader but do not be misled by this style because the content….oh, the content of those humble, uncluttered lines strikes blow after blow as lives and fortunes are wounded and pierced or lavished and rescued.

Friends ….ya gotta read this one.


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Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book does a great job portraying the fitful and arbitrary nature of virtue in man (generally) and in man at war (especially). It captures the beastliness of warfare and the monstrosities birthed by hatred.
But, I don't think this is a great book - there was far too much circuitous dialogue. Also, the central character's relationship with Maria is practically cartoonish. I'm not sure this one is Hemingway's best.
I blanched as Hemingway wielded his blunt instrument through the telling of this story - it packed a punch in many places. I also learned a lot about the Spanish Civil War - not something I've ever reflected upon.
I am glad I read it but would not describe it as a page-turner.

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Review: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phew! This was a tough one to get through but so worthy of the effort. So weighty were some of the eternal questions put forth in the dense dialogues, that I did feel the need to tune in to some Yakety Sax for a few minutes of relief. I would have liked to have known the brothers - not so much the father. Dostoyevsky could have been an architect - his blueprint for building his message is so very elegant. I thought. I learned. I winced when my own sensibilities were challenged (this is a good measure for a great book....but the world does not need me to tell them that Brothers Karamazov is a great book). So, hey, read this dang book. You will be better for it !

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Review: The Outlander

The Outlander The Outlander by Gil Adamson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is 1903 and this young woman who hears voices and has committed a grisly murder ends up in the woods, on the run, and with only a tenuous grasp of reality. One crazy thing after another happens, including true love. The roller coaster ride? It has terrific twists and turns. I started reading this book while standing in Barnes and Noble. Two hours later I reluctantly left the store without finishing or purchasing the book. Two weeks later I returned to the store and sat down with the book, thinking I'd just read a few more pages and then buy the darn book. I sat on the floor and finished the book. Then I bought it so I could read it again. You are going to love the characters in this book.

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Review: The Awakening

The Awakening The Awakening by Kate Chopin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a must read for any young women who are interested in "women's studies". It is a tidy story but the reader is left with unwieldy thoughts at the end. After being with Edna Pontellier for 140 pages, at the end it is not immediately possible (at least it should not be) to evaluate her character. Chopin weaves a sad complex landscape for the feminist.

I could not put the book down.

Through Edna's trials and tribulations, the reader feels as if she is walking down a slow, narrow corridor. I was worried that the boundaries of her yarn were too tightly strung up. But at the end of the corridor I discovered with relief an enormous question - one that sits in a vast wilderness of every woman's soul.

Loved this book.

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Review: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you ever hope to understand how our world works and how financial decisions, which effect every single aspect of your life from start to finish, come to be .... then you MUST read this book. It is a game-changer from start to finish.

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Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might be the strangest book I have ever read. I loved it. I think it's Billy Pilgrim's fatalism that I found peculiarly appealing. How did Vonnegut create a voice so pessimistic without having that voice be "judgey"? For me the appeal is in that phenomena.

I have officially begun my quest to read all that Vonnegut wrote.

I do take some comfort (since I'm getting to know this writer almost a decade after his death) that on his very own planet of Tralfamadore he is still very much alive, since the inhabitants there see all time as simultaneously present.

Although Vonnegut, through Pilgrim, ends up sounding like he doesn't believe in much at all, he is funny and rather endearing. Maybe I'm the only one who finds it amusing when an author convincingly points out the absence of progress on Earth.

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Review: Zorba the Greek

Zorba the Greek Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Finishing this book was like finishing a meal that tastes bad. It was sheer determination alone that got me through it. Yes, while reading this, I did try to relax, set the clock back five decades, and ‘wear a different hat’. It did not work.

From the start, I disliked Zorba intensely. He’s a cur. He is childish and selfish and vulgar. He believes his own lies about life, about women, about work and about success. The author created a person who is actually the embodiment of a witless sluggard but all through the book tries to convince the reader that he is a charming, self-fulfilled, impish philosopher. Had I read this at the age of 16, I don’t think I would have been swayed to hold this view for a single second.

How in the world it comes to appear on so many “You Must Read” book lists, I will never, ever understand. Aside from the fact that the main character is an imbecilic slouch, the book is missing a plot. It’s just not there.

This book does one thing – it serves a certain flavor of Kool-Aide. That’s all. Problem is …. I never drink Kool-Aide.


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Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the first few pages, my mind flung a heavy slipcover over all the "furniture" of my world. Nothing mattered but the yarn Ms. Tartt was unraveling for me. I have been possessed and simply could not sleep much for the past three days, fearing a seasonal distraction would successfully derail me from the haunted Goldfinch-tossed lives.

Now that it is done, I know I am disappointed. I think the book tries to be too much. I wonder if there were large stretches of time in between her writings to complete this book. Her voice changes in the telling and I could feel her shifting from passion to perfunctory description at times. The first half is tight and it really hums.

Still, I needed to find out how all of the characters landed as much as I needed to eat and breathe. So, kuddos to Ms. Tartt.

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Review: Sam the Cat: and Other Stories

Sam the Cat: and Other Stories Sam the Cat: and Other Stories by Matthew Klam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a country long-paralyzed by political correctness this book of short stories is seriously brazen. And possibly imprudent. But I did like it - the stories are brutally funny.
I picked it up in a used book store while on vacation. I read the first two pages and loved his butcher's knife style with words.
The central character in all of the stories (except the last story in the book) is a devilish, hopeless, grotesquely believable man who is deeply terrified of authentic love. He is a puerile lightweight who is in love with the idea of love. We all know the type.
His handicap is seen in both men and women.
It made me laugh out loud, because it really was funny and because I am so many years past this phenomena having any impact on my life. However, if I were young and had recently been jilted, I'd probably be spewing venom right now.

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Review: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The entire, strange book is a dialogue - an odd vehicle for the author's message, whatever that was. I could not tell.
Unfortunately, I intensely disliked the central character - a self-centered, ineffectual, whiny, lawless, n'er do well who expects the world to find a way to fix him. In order to get answers to questions he has about his malaise and general disappointment with life, he kidnaps a bunch of people and hammers them with questions - and through these unpleasant interrogations he hopes to acquire knowledge. Huh? Very weak.
It seemed to me that each of the individuals he kidnaped, even the borderline pedophile, was a far better human being than this kid could every hope to be. The only likable characters were the reliable taxpayers.
Through the reading of this flaky book, I learned that the old maxim "there are no stupid questions" is false.

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Review: My Year with Eleanor

My Year with Eleanor My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly charming - this is a genre of book which I do not often explore but I wanted to wrap up my summer reading on a light note. All of the events are true - the author writes about herself. She is a 29 year old Yale grad who wants to find herself and find meaning in her life. It sounds hackneyed but the interesting twist is that she (more or less) channels Eleanor Roosevelt to create the fortitude she needs to face her own fears. Its depiction of modern-day "Why does everything seem so difficult?!" angst, is absolutely spot-on. Eleanor Roosevelt's history, which is artfully woven through this author's journey, is powerful and inspirational. The author herself is a laugh riot; she is genuinely funny. It gets two thumbs up. I am recommending it to every female college student and young-ish professional woman I know, although it is truly a book to be enjoyed by anyone. Next, I am planning to read up on Eleanor Roosevelt!

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Review: A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Earlier this month, I decided to read a few of Hemingway's best works. The short story, The Old Man and the Sea, impressed me but I wasn't sure he was worth all the fuss. So I figured I would start with this title, A Moveable Feast, which is not fiction but rather tells about Hem (as he was called by friends) as a young, poor, struggling writer in Paris from 1920 to 1923. It was published after his death from groups of notes he left behind. I do appreciate elegant economy of his sentences.

This is a good book. Not great, but good. It was fun to get a view into the everyday lives of struggling artists and to imagine growing up in this era. He hung out with a motley crew of expats, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. The conversational snippets with Gertrude Stein alone made the book worth reading. If accurate, the exchanges reveal a truly nasty lady....although he always consider her a friend, despite her barbed and disagreeable nature. Little things like this were intriguing. I liked this book enough to move forward and have just started For Whom the Bell Tolls!

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Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a book, what a book, what a book. If you read no other book in your life ....read this one.

It instructs deeply on the dangers of the "unexamined life". My very favorite person is Levin who sums up the political crisis of his day, which is startling similar to the partisan politics and the crisis of our day, when he says: "That word 'people' is so vague. Parish clerks, teachers and one in a thousand of the peasants, maybe, know what is's all about. The rest of the eighty million, like Mihalitch, far from expressing their will, haven't the faintest idea what there is for them to express their will about. What right have we to say that this is the people's will?"

Also, Levin, while watching children who were being destructive and who were disregarding advice and admonitions from adults, concludes: "they could not believe it indeed, for they could not take in the immensity of all they habitually enjoyed, and so could not conceive that what they were destroying was the very thing they lived by."

He describes our society in 2014 with alarming accuracy. Then one realizes that the condition into which we are born has not changed much at all.

Old books deliver this message so much more powerfully than new ones.

Read Anna Karenina. You will be glad you did.

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Review: The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun

The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun by Sister Madonna Buder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after seeing a video on Facebook about this 80-something nun who did over 300 triathlons and many IronMan competitions. OK, I had to bite. How? How does someone with this many decades under her belt keep putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end?

So I read it. (This can be done in just a couple of hours.) While Sister Madonna is someone you will quickly put on your "I gotta meet her one day" list, the book itself is not well-organized or well-written. I felt like I needed a motion discomfort bag just from the mish-mash of dates and time periods. I like linear. This book is not linear. It reads like a stream-of-consciousness essay.

Then there are the details of her many mishaps. (It truly is a miracle that this woman is still alive.) She has been hit by cars (frequently!!) and, through what seems like a combination of bad judgment and poor planning, she has survived more physical blunders and collisions than most of the people I know ..... added up together!

Finally, I hoped to have some useful take-aways. What is her diet like? Mediocre, it turns out. Well, how about her carefully engineered training program? There isn't one. She wings it, apparently.

The woman's faith and spirit are the stuff of legends. She is a character. I really would love to spend an afternoon with her. I just did not get the athletic inspiration I was seeking from the book.


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Review: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book for one of my kids but ended up reading it myself. It is essentially a journal (a solidly well-written journal) of one man's hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. I started out with a "not particularly interested in this" feeling but quickly found myself fully invested in this man's determination to do the AT. The injuries, the oddballs encountered along the way, the AT culture and economy - these were all thought-provoking. However, the daily debates in the life of the mind in which he is consumed when he is fighting with himself over whether he should (for example) do that extra 3 miles or pitch a tent....this was gripping. If you have goals, if you are trying hard to achieve something which is tough and which makes you weary to the bone, then you know this mental battle, too. There is a voice telling you to quit and a voice telling you to look for solutions and carry on. This book will definitely inspire you to go the distance!

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Review: Middlemarch

Middlemarch Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

​This author astounded me. Her style of highbrow understatement produces complex sentences each of which is like a stained glass window, and so often I found myself stopping to study the light passing through the artful mosaic. Dazzling linguistic expression.

Because she has so much to say on provincial life, political reform, and on the role of women in the early to mid 19th century, she wields her pen like a weapon of mass destruction... but in the most polite fashion.​ George Eliot is the pen name used by Mary Ann Evans and one does not get far into the book before coming to grips with her distinctly feminist voice. Unlike most Victorian writers (and surely all female Victorian writers) the author does not care for cute alliances and happily-ever-after marriages. Her feet are firmly planted in the pragmatic soil of real life with flawed humans. So, this author has omnipotent talent AND she is very brave.

As she directed me over 800 pages and through the lives of her characters and the consequences of their humanity (some might say stupidity), it is the heroine, Dorothea, who commanded the most attention. Like the author of this considerable volume, Dorothea wants to live a life of the mind more than anything else. She marries foolishly to accomplish this. Consider this quote (from the man Dorothea adored) in a "love" letter he wrote to her: "I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated." Good grief. In her quest for knowledge, learning and wisdom, Dorothea marries this nincompoop. (This occurs rather early on in the book so do not despair.) One might expect by the end of this expansive tale to find Dorothea where she deserves to be - on top of the world! Well, George Eliot is not Jane Austen. Frankly, I think Austen is utterly dwarfed by Eliot's almighty competence and foresight. Dorothea is exactly where she wants to be at the end of the story, revealing the wisdom of the author.

Every now and then I like to read a book which is all sizzle and no steak - brain candy - for the tranquilizing effect. This is decidedly NOT brain candy. Middlemarch can best be described as all steak. I hope you read it. It has made me a better thinker. This quote impressed me most as the best reflection of the author's spirit in the writing of this tome:

“If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.”

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Review: The Sea Wolf

The Sea Wolf The Sea Wolf by Jack London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a mighty book. It is a brilliant, heart-stopping combat between man and nature but more so a rage-filled clash of good and evil. The language is so beautiful and the battles and contentions are perfectly constructed. How can you not want to read a book with quotes like this:

~ Do you know the only value life has is what life puts upon itself? And it is of course overestimated,
for it is of necessity prejudiced in its own favour.

~ (Man) sadly overrates himself. There is plenty more life demanding to be born. Had he fallen and
dripped his brains upon the deck like honey from the comb, there would have been no loss to the
world. He was worth nothing to the world. The supply is too large.


Ever wandered what kind of life is lived by a man without a heart? He lives on the pages of this book through him you can learn how evil explains itself. I think that is a useful thing to know.

Ever wondered what a good man does in the face of monstrous depravity?

Do you think about eternity?

Read this book.

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

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I now know loads more about ultra-marathoning. However the book is sparse on its central topic - the Tarahumara. This Copper Canyon tribe of indefatigable, super-athletes haunt and taunt mere mortal athletes. They don't suffer pedestrian ailments like shin splints, bunions or bursitis. They fly up hills. They are smiling at mile 88. I finished the book still hankering for more about these matchless marathoners.

Although short on Tarahumara details it is long on general anecdotal tales of other incredible runners and it was great fun to swim in this soup....it was far better entertainment than one could ever get watching staged reality programs on not-so-fabulous feats in the wilderness. Quite the opposite actually. These great competitors (many former Olympic medal winners) are the real deal. Also, many of the crazy characters McDougall met along the way were refreshing in a different way -- they were real people doing real things (a lot of HARD things), and I was inspired.

My favorite take-away idea as it relates to athletic performance came from Coach Vigil in advice he gave Deena Kastor when he agreed to take her on and help her qualify for the Olympics: Live lean and build your soul as much as your strength.

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Review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is neurosurgery denuded of it majesty. Mr. Marsh peels away the pomp from top to bottom and what is revealed is the simple nuts and bolts of fixing brains. Although it is surely quite complicated, his diffident style of describing the mechanics of his work make it highly accessible - limpid. You don't need to know a thing about medicine or neurosurgery to throughly enjoy and learn volumes from this book.

I sorely wish I could meet this man.

His writing is spry, comedic, and, at times, scorching - especially on the topic of the abominations of his country's national health care system. Strongly showcased throughout the book is his own fallibility and the enduring misery his failures have engrafted on his life. This was enormously touching and I don't think it was meant to be self-serving. When you dig into a brain, things can and sometimes do go horribly wrong. Mr. Marsh seems to have made a decision that these errors should not be swept under the carpet. Nor does he want to shroud or suppress the often brutally honest deliberations by doctors on whether or not to offer hope at all to many of their patients.

His honesty is bracing. His work in Ukraine - vital.

It bears repeating - I sorely wish that I could meet this man.

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Review: Watership Down

Watership Down Watership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A classic from the 70’s which I had never read; I only picked it up out of a sense of duty, really. At the beginning I did not bargain much for an interest in rabbits. I just don’t care much about rabbits, but in this yarn I was thoroughly engrossed. It is a warm and wonderful tale, which unfolds so softly that the suspense is unexpected and that much more effective.

The author, Richard Adams, has asserted that it is just a story he made up for his kids and that it is not an allegory – it was not intended to represent countries, politics, or any broader issues. However, it was hard not to read into some of the situations and identify the symbolic culprits. For example, one rabbit’s conversation about a particularly authoritarian warren: “In that warren a rabbit can’t call his life his own, and in return you have safety, if it is worth having at all for the price you pay.”

Art Garfunkel’s song, “Bright Eyes” is about Hazel, the fearless leader of this pilgrim rabbit group. I have always loved that song – its meaning has deepened exponentially now that I’ve finally read the book.

And rabbits are infinitely more interesting as well!


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Review: Pied Piper

Pied Piper Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second Nevil Shute book this year. His writing style is so appealing - mellow, guileless story-telling at its very best. The book clarifies right from wrong over and over and over, again. This is so refreshing in the confusing times in which we now live. His characters are regular people doing the right thing and doing it gallantly. They have guts. They are selfless, decent, thoughtful types and they return to humanity that dignity which has been lost in the fog of political correctness and the speed of our modern, electronic age.
In this book and in all of his books, there is no uncalled-for foul language and there are no gratuitous carnal passages. While it is unpolluted in this way (thank you, Mr. Shute) it is never feeble, never dull. This story takes place (mostly) in France when the Germans invaded and overran the country in WWII. It is exciting! It offers an up-close and more personal perspective on what it might have been like for non-military adult and children in France at this time. You will love the uncompromising Mr. Howard!
I highly recommend this to book to all.



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Review: The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun

The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun by Sister Madonna Buder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after seeing a video on Facebook about this 80-something nun who did over 300 triathlons and many IronMan competitions. OK, I had to bite. How? How does someone with this many decades under her belt keep putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end?

So I read it. (This can be done in just a couple of hours.) While Sister Madonna is someone you will quickly put on your "I gotta meet her one day" list, the book itself is not well-organized or well-written. I felt like I needed a motion discomfort bag just from the mish-mash of dates and time periods. I like linear. This book is not linear. It reads like a stream-of-consciousness essay.

Then there are the details of her many mishaps. (It truly is a miracle that this woman is still alive.) She has been hit by cars (frequently!!) and, through what seems like a combination of bad judgment and poor planning, she has survived more physical blunders and collisions than most of the people I know ..... added up together!

Finally, I hoped to have some useful take-aways. What is her diet like? Mediocre, it turns out. Well, how about her carefully engineered training program? There isn't one. She wings it, apparently.

The woman's faith and spirit are the stuff of legends. She is a character. I really would love to spend an afternoon with her. I just did not get the athletic inspiration I was seeking from the book.


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Review: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book once is simply not enough. I just finished the audio version, but now I must have a hard copy in which to write notes and in order to engage fully with all of the fascinating studies on brain neuroplasticity. This stuff makes my heart beat faster - never again will I take my neuronal real estate for granted. My favorite quote from this book: "Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment: the monotony undermines our dopamine and attentional systems crucial to our brain plasticity".

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Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable, breezy read - perfect for a rainy day or a lounging beach day. The plot is rather linear and at times sophomoric but I did learn some stuff about cutting edge technology. It marries the charm of the old and the magnetism of the very new rather well.

For me the sign of a great book is when I grab a note book to jot down profound ideas that are revealed to me while reading. I did not need to do this while reading Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, but I did dig into one or two wiki articles to further explore some techie topics.

All in, a good book.

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Review: Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success

Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one will dazzle you with its simplicity, its salt-of-the-earth sensibility, and its sheer power to yank you out of complacency. It's more of a reset button than a book, so do it - read this book and enjoy the 'reset'.

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Review: Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No offense to Samuel Beckett fans, but I did not think this play was worth the time I spent reading it.
It was simultaneously heavy-handed and sycophantic. Maybe I'm used to working a little to unpack the symbolism - I like to hunt through artfully woven passages and unearth the craft - the mastery. I don't much like it when ingenuity comes in the form of a blunt instrument such as this .... this sad, dada-esque presentation.

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Review: Shantung Compound

Shantung Compound Shantung Compound by Langdon Brown Gilkey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is more important now that when it was first written. It addresses human behavior when resources are limited. You can see both the unassailable power of love and the tendency to be selfish and to bicker, as the hungrier they were the more they cheated one another.

Ultimately, these people come to know hunger, fear, great physical discomfort and complete loss of privacy. They were all ordinary middle/upper class citizens and they were all thrust into this internment camp where there was no government. They formed their own and for the most part it really worked quite well! 2,000 people self-governing ....none were paid....and they made it work. In their camp, no one (NO ONE) could get away with doing nothing. ALL WORKED. All contributed in some way.

What a book. What a terrific tool for viewing all that is good and all that is wrong with humanity.

These days, with a country so thoroughly infected with moocher mentality, it should be imperative reading in the schools.

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Review: Stoner

Stoner Stoner by John Edward Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not sure what to say about this book. The bleakness of the story and the lives of all the characters in it, whether minor or central to the story, utterly hypnotized me, but I'm not sure why.

Beautifully written. It is a thoughtful, painful witness to one man's struggle to get comfortable in the world, in life, in his own skin. He's a scholar, a loner, eccentric and awkward and mystified by the things that 'regular' people find easy. I never could understand how he always accepted misfortune and misery so seamlessly. He's a little bit like Bartleby the Scrivener and a little bit like Mr. Rogers but not as cheery.

It is touching to watch how honorably he acts at all times. The whole book is strangely quieting in that the reader knows that he is witnessing something very, very rare and he wants to know more about this unusual guy. Yet, I could not give it more than a 3 because the take-aways are so vague and in every nook and cranny of the tale there is just so much sadness.

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Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second reading of this book - the first was in 1989. It is every bit as potent and instructive today. Wolfe has so many clever outcomes for the opportunists ( in his story)who use the central tragedy of this perfect storm of blundering humanity to serve their own needs. Wolfe uses these outcomes like a tool of great precision in the giant sad picture he crafts. I think there is so much to be learned about human nature in this book. Read it!

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Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book for the thinker - that's for sure. Taleb challenges all of the false fodder served up to the average citizen by his or her betters. He's a statistician and a formidable researcher, so if you are looking for a beach-read, this book should not be your first choice.
My nickname for this book and for all that Taleb has to say about the world is .... Common Sense 2.0.
He has a sharp tongue and he does not suffer pompous fools who get drunk daily at the Kool-Aide bar.

If nothing else, it is important for Americans to learn to know a "Fragilista" when they meet one. This is a good place to begin and it will make the world a better place. Thank you, Mr. Taleb.


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Review: Charms for the Easy Life

Charms for the Easy Life Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What makes this book such a gem, other than Gibbons' masterful pen, is that the characters are exquisitely present in their lives. You do not see this in the life of a woman in this century. Charlie Kate, Sophia and Margaret - each is living the life they want to live. - not terribly complicated lives, but luxuriously meaningful and purposeful lives.

I did not want the story to end. (I want to hear from grandmother every day!) I'm going to read it again just so I can jot down some of grandmother's wittiest and most dazzling observations. The book is a hoot from start to finish, but it is much, much more than just funny. It makes you look back. It makes you find the warmest corners of your childhood - the moments without a goal or objective - the beautiful, flawed, hilarious, simple, poignant moments that fill a heart. I really liked that.

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