East of Eden by John Steinbeck

April 15, 2014

east of eden Plot summary (from the publisher): In his journal, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed it has the primordial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

The masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I first tread this book in junior high school and remembered loving it back then. I wondered if I would feel the same way viewing the characters and events through adult eyes, and I did! East of Eden was every bit as engaging and emotionally charged as I had hoped.
  • I really enjoyed the relationship between Adam and Lee. Although Lee was supposed to be a servant, they treated each other with equal regard and respect, and ended up having a very deep friendship. Lee saved Adam’s life (literally) more than once, and Adam provided Lee with the home and family that he needed.
  • There were some really wonderful confrontation scenes in this book: Adam and Charles; Samuel and Adam about the twins; Adam and Cathy at the whorehouse; Caleb and Cathy; Adam and Caleb at the end. All of these scenes were powerful because of the circumstances and because the characters were so well drawn.
  • Cathy Ames is one of the most memorable literary characters I have ever come across. She was so purely evil–and unapologetically so–that she was simply fascinating to read about. In fact, I wanted to learn more about her and would gladly have sacrificed a lot of the Hamilton stuff (or even the Aron/Abra stuff for more about Cathy.

Disliked:

  • The Cain and Abel theme was a little too overt for my tastes, beginning with the obvious “Charles” and “Adam” and culminating with “Caleb” and “Aron.” I don’t mind symbolism in a book, but the author should at least make the reader work to get it.
  • This book is often referred to as begin about the Trasks AND the Hamiltons. However, I think this is a bit misleading, as the Hamiltons (aside from Samuel, perhaps) play such a relatively minor role throughout.

Rating:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is by no means a perfect work. It has some problems, but its strengths outweigh those problems by such a staggering degree that I still fee comfortable giving this one 5 stars out of 5.

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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven J. Levitt

April 11, 2014

Freakonomics Summary (from the publisher): Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?

What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

How much do parents really matter?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to parenting and sports—and reaches conclusions that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They set out to explore the inner workings of a crack gang, the truth about real estate agents, the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, and much more.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, they show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

Reaction:

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked the point the authors made about how it can sometimes pay to ask unlikely questions and probe for causation between two seemingly unrelated events. On the other hand, I didn’t agree with all their conclusions and thought they at times stretched the numbers/logic to fit their needs.

For example, I thought the authors made their case like seasoned attorneys in downtown Raleigh when talking about fixed sumo wrestling matches, the importance of names on future success, and the inverse relationship between abortion and crime (as controversial as that particular hypothesis was). However, I remain skeptical about their other conclusions, such as the one regarding the (un)importance of parenting.

One of the more eye-opening (and practical) parts of the book was the one that dealt with real estate agents and how it’s in the agent’s best interest to get a house sold quickly (by accepting a lower dollar amount than the buyer originally wanted) than to work harder for an extra $10,000 – $20,000 on the asking price. Why? Because the higher price, when translated to the agent’s commission, only resulted in about $600 — not enough to justify the work. Now that’s information I feel I can put to use!

Besides the content of the book, I also want to comment on the writing style. I didn’t like it. It was serviceable, but not very entertaining or noteworthy. Maybe I was overly sensitive to this because I’d just read some Gladwell (whose style I typically enjoy). Whatever the reason, this book put me to sleep a few times — especially when the writers BELABORED the point about names by including endless lists and examples in that chapter. Ugh.

Rating:

Having heard a lot about Freakonomics when it was first published, I was really hoping to dive into this one and emerge with tons of new knowledge and perhaps even some new perspective on the world. That didn’t quite happen, though from now on I am probably going to be a bit more wary about mindlessly accepting statistics and posited causation linking two events. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

April 7, 2014

titan ron chernow Summary (from the publisher): John D. Rockefeller, Sr.–history’s first billionaire and the patriarch of America’s most famous dynasty–is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul “etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have” (Kirkus Reviews). Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller’s exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book will indelibly alter our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.

Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world’s richest man by creating America’s most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded “the Octopus” by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.

Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation’s history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.

While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller’s misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously–his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University–than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.

John D. Rockefeller’s story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller’s life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow’s signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.

Liked:

  • The first thing that jumped out at me about this book was the writing style. It is positively brilliant! It is scholarly without being overly dense, and flows more like a page-turning novel than a biography. I’d never heard of Ron Chernow before reading Titan, but you better believe I’ll be seeking out more of his stuff.
  • Considering the fact that Rockefeller lived for 97 years, the sheer scope of this work is daunting. But Chernow handles it deftly, and proceeds in an orderly, chronological fashion that never leaves the reader disoriented. Furthermore, he often brings up other events that were happening in the U.S. (such as Prohibition, the Great Depression, etc.) to further help ground the reader in a specific time period.
  • There were far too many interesting aspects of Rockefeller’s life to mention all the things I liked, so I’ll settle on the two big ones: First, I had no idea that he got so rich so quickly. I thought it took him years and years to build up his fortune (and though indeed becoming a billionaire did take time), but he went from shipping clerk to Standard Oil president in the blink of an eye. Second, I didn’t realize he did so much to promote medical research. I was vaguely aware of the Rockefeller connection to education, but not at all so about his funding of medical research. As Chernow pointed out, Rockefeller money saved countless lives due to vaccinations developed at his research lab.
  • Chernow was fair in his treatment of the subject. He doesn’t exactly vilify Rockefeller, but he doesn’t pull any punches regarding the man’s unethical business practices, either. While I believe Rockefeller almost certainly deserves to be called a “robber baron,” Chernow is careful not to condemn Rockefeller based on hearsay or speculation. He tries to stick to what can be established through firsthand sources, which is all that can be expected of him.
  • I enjoyed the glimpses at Rockefeller’s personal life and liked how he wasn’t portrayed one-dimensionally as a shrewd, money-grubbing capitalist. He liked cycling before it was common, loved golf, and always had a soft spot for young children. Those facts are rarely associated with the name John Rockefeller, are they? And yet, those things were probably closer to his true nature than the business side — especially since he retired so young and spent most of his life AWAY from business.

Disliked:

  • There wasn’t much to dislike in this book, but if I had to pick something it would be all the focus on Junior’s life. I can understand the need to include stuff about Junior’s handling of Standard Oil and other business matters as related to Senior; however, at one point Chernow had the reader so knee-deep in Junior’s personal world (marriage, children, social life, etc.) that anyone randomly turning to those pages would think the book was about him.

Rating:

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow, was, without question, the best biography I’ve ever read. It was comprehensive in scope, thorough in detail, and beautifully written. Even though the paperback version weighed in at a hefty 832 pages, I didn’t want the story to end. That is as much a testament to Chernow’s skill as a writer as it is to Rockefeller’s compelling life. I give this book 5 stars out of 5.

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Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

April 3, 2014

tocqueville-democracy-in-america Summary (from the publisher): In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing democratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His insightful work has become one of the most influential political texts ever written on America and an indispensable authority on democracy.

Liked:

  • The first half of the book was an amazing analysis of the U.S. in its early days as a republic. The breadth and depth of Tocqueville’s knowledge is stunning, particularly when you consider that he basically learned everything from firsthand observation or simply talking to people that he met. This was like a very interesting textbook.
  • The writing style was rather modern and easy to read. That might have been a function of the translation, but in any case it’s worth noting. Sometimes when trying to read older historical works, the style is so dense that getting through it is a chore. That was not the case here (luckily enough, given how long the book is).
  • How prescient was Tocqueville about the slavery question? I know he got a few things wrong in his book, but he was spot-on with the prediction that slavery would be the cause of a major upheaval.
  • I liked Tocqueville’s conclusion that part of America’s superiority stemmed from the greatness of its women. It seems that crediting women for anything in the 1830s was rare enough, but to credit them for so much was basically unheard of.

Disliked:

  • This book felt extremely repetitive at times. It felt as though Tocqueville was listing off the same positives and warning against the same negatives over and over. The author himself admitted to this repetition, but of course he excused it as necessary and proceeded with the same old litany anyway.
  • There was some decidedly racist language directed at Native Americans as well as slaves. A part of me feels like I should excuse these faults as a product of Tocqueville’s time, and for the most part I guess I do. But I can’t overlook it completely.

Rating:

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is not the kind of book that I normally read. I admit that I was scared to get into it because I thought it would be way over my head; but much like War and Peace, once I started it was far easier going than I imagined. The writing was fantastic and the subject matter was mostly interesting. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass

March 28, 2014

the tin drum-001 Plot summary (from the publisher): The Tin Drum, one of the great novels of the twentieth century, was published in Ralph Manheim’s outstanding translation in 1959. It became a runaway bestseller and catapulted its young author to the forefront of world literature.
This fiftieth anniversary edition, translated by Breon
Mitchell, is more faithful to Grass’s style and rhythm, restores omissions, and reflects more fully the complexity of the original work.

After fifty years, The Tin Drum has, if anything, gained in power and relevance. All of Grass’s amazing evocations are still there, and still amazing: Oskar Matzerath, the indomitable drummer; his grandmother, Anna Koljaiczek; his mother, Agnes; Alfred Matzerath and Jan Bronski, his presumptive fathers. And Oskar’s midget friends—Bebra, the great circus master, and Roswitha Raguna, the famous somnambulist; Sister Scholastica and Sister Agatha, the Right Reverend Father Wiehnke, the Greffs, the Schefflers, Herr Fajngold, all Kashubians, Poles, Germans, and Jews—waiting to be discovered and rediscovered.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • There’s no denying that Oskar Matzerath is a memorable character. I despised him, it’s true; but even so, I won’t soon forget how he was born fully cognizant with adult comprehension; his red and white lacquered tin drums; his hunchback; his tiny stature; his penchant for getting involved in wholly absurd situations; his grandmother with the four skirts and lingering smell of rancid butter; his two presumptive fathers (both of whom he indirectly killed); his mother and her death by eels; and his singing voice that could shatter glass with such precision that Oskar amused himself by tempting window shoppers into petty theft. Any author’s job is to create memorable characters, and in this regard, Grass succeeded.
  • The opening line of the book was fantastic: “Granted: I am an inmate in a mental hospital…”

Disliked:

  • There was so much I disliked about this book that I can’t begin to list everything here. From Oskar himself, who I thought was incredibly annoying and lacking in any redemptive qualities at all, to the dumb adventures he embarked on, practically every minute spent reading this book was a severe trial to my patience. The only reason I even bothered to finish is because it’s on the Top 100 List.
  • I didn’t understand any of the symbolism in this book. Everything I’ve read about it says Oskar stands for Germany and his various travails are supposed to represent what the non-Nazi Germans went through in World War II. I read these interpretations BEFORE reading the book and STILL didn’t “get it.” I must be exceedingly dumb.

Rating:

I have a feeling that The Tin Drum is one of those books that you either love or hate. I cannot imagine there being any middle ground with this type of work. Unfortunately, I come down squarely on the “hate” side of things. Although there were a few random lines or scenes that I enjoyed from the book, most of it was just very tiresome for me. I can appreciate how others, those that are able to decipher the symbolism and apply parallels to the happenings in the book to the struggles of the German people during WWII, would have an entirely different reaction. But The Tin Drum just wasn’t for me. I give it 1 star out of 5.

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The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr.

March 24, 2014

the  kid Summary (from the publisher): Williams was the best hitter in baseball history. His batting average of .406 in 1941 has not been topped since, and no player who has hit more than 500 home runs has a higher career batting average. Those totals would have been even higher if Williams had not left baseball for nearly five years in the prime of his career to serve as a Marine pilot in WWII and Korea. He hit home runs farther than any player before him–and traveled a long way himself, as Ben Bradlee, Jr.’s grand biography reveals. Born in 1918 in San Diego, Ted would spend most of his life disguising his Mexican heritage. During his 22 years with the Boston Red Sox, Williams electrified crowds across America–and shocked them, too: His notorious clashes with the press and fans threatened his reputation. Yet while he was a God in the batter’s box, he was profoundly human once he stepped away from the plate. His ferocity came to define his troubled domestic life. While baseball might have been straightforward for Ted Williams, life was not.

THE KID is biography of the highest literary order, a thrilling and honest account of a legend in all his glory and human complexity. In his final at-bat, Williams hit a home run. Bradlee’s marvelous book clears the fences, too.

Reaction:

Note: I knew nothing of Ted Williams (besides the fact that he was the last .400 hitter in MLB) prior to reading this book, and have no other Williams biographies to compare this to. As such, the following opinion is formed from the point of view of a very casual baseball fan, not necessarily from a Ted Williams fan.

Bradlee’s biography of Ted Williams is exhaustive in scope and covers every period of Ted’s life in great detail. The chronology starts off in a logical manner, as the book opens with stories of Ted’s childhood and school years in San Diego. But once Ted gets to the majors, Bradlee begins mentioning a bunch of things that happen in the future. The overarching narrative remains chronological, but the details become confusing.

Nevertheless, I was almost immediately mesmerized by the way Ted was portrayed in this book. I have the utmost respect for anyone that dedicates himself so completely to his craft — and despite all the other stuff that happened in Ted’s life, no one can say he neglected his hitting.

Still, what made Ted fascinating was the fact that there was a decidedly selfish, totally un-P.C. side of himself that he rarely bothered to hide. Here was a guy that cared more for individual stats than team success and who flipped off the fans with regularity. A guy who physically abused his wives, neglected his children, and had multiple extramarital affairs. Can you imagine what the tabloids, paparazzi, and Twitter would do to such a player in this day and age? But as despicable as some of his failings were, they served to paint him as a human — just like the rest of us.

Bradlee’s book in general was pretty good. I liked the writing and felt that Ted’s baseball career received the thorough treatment it deserved.

However, the author went too far in covering other aspect’s of Ted’s life and included stuff that really didn’t need to be in there. For example, Bradlee went off on a tangent about the Red Sox owner’s summer home and dalliances at a brothel. Was that necessary? Similarly, Bradlee — perhaps because he’s a journalist himself — spent an inordinate amount of time describing the Boston press corps and their relationship to Ted. Yeah, it was adversarial, but man, that stuff got exceedingly repetitive after a while.

The worst part of the book, for me, was the last 1/3 or 1/4, which covered Ted’s retirement years. This is where the tone and focus shifted significantly and essentially became a biography of John-Henry Williams instead of Ted Williams. Bradlee went to great lengths to show how much of a bad seed John-Henry turned out to be, culminating with the infamous cryonics episode. Again, was it necessary to cover so much about John-Henry (dating back to his high school days, FFS!) in order to give the reader an idea of what kind of man he was? Not at all! The author should have cut a hundred or so pages from the final product and kept the focus squarely on Ted.

Rating:

Overall, I thought The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams was a engrossing and enjoyable read. Casual fans will learn more about Williams than they ever dreamed of, and more hadrcore fans can probably pick up an interesting tidbit or two as well. Even with the boring, nonessential detours in place, I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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Bone by Bone by Carol O’Connell

March 21, 2014

bone by bone Plot summary (from the publisher): In the northern California town of Coventry, two teenage brothers go into the woods one day, but only one comes back. No one knows what happened to the younger brother, Josh, until twenty years later, when the older brother, Oren, now an ex-investigator for the Army CID, returns to Coventry for the first time in many years.

His first morning back, he hears a thump on the front porch. Lying in front of the door is a human jawbone, the teeth still intact. And it is not the first such object, his father tells him. Other remains have been left there as well. Josh is coming home…bone by bone.

Using all his investigative skills, Oren sets out to solve the mystery of his brother’s murder, but Coventry is a town full of secrets and secret-keepers: the housekeeper with the fugitive past, the deputy with the old grudge, the reclusive ex-cop from L.A., the woman with the title of town monster, and, not least of all, Oren himself.

But the greatest secret of all belonged to his brother, and it is only by unraveling it that Oren can begin to discover the truth that has haunted them all for twenty years.

Warning: MAJOR spoilers below!

  • This book had a very interesting premise: sending the remains of a missing/presumed dead boy back home “bone by bone”. I thought that was a great way to reintroduce the cold case. Unfortunately, the author didn’t carry out the premise very far, as the special deliveries stopped after just two bones were sent and the full grave discovered almost immediately.

Disliked:

  • There was way too much jumping around to different characters’ points of view. Not only did this make the story more confusing to follow, but it prevented me from developing a sufficient attachment to any of the main players. Specifically, I wanted more from Oren or Hannah, the most interesting characters by far.
  • It made no sense that Hannah hid her knowledge of the murderer’s identity for so long. Initially, she didn’t reveal Dave (the alcoholic deputy and the boy that Oren beat up in front of the whole school in defense of Josh) as the killer because she was worried that Oren would “lose it” and kill Dave in retaliation. Okay, so maybe that excuse holds up for a few years at the most, at least until Oren matures. But to keep the secret buried for 20+ years was not at all believable.
  • WTF was the point of the Isabelle Winston character? Were readers supposed to view her full-on physical ASSAULTS of Oren as some kind of sexy foreplay? How were any of her violent actions toward him acceptable in any way??? Could you imagine if the roles were reversed and Oren just went up to her and slugged her or kicked her without provocation and without saying a word? How fucking dumb!
  • The down-home CIB investigator Sally Polk seemed like such a blatant ripoff of the Marge Gunderson character from Fargo that I couldn’t view her in any other way. All the similarities, whether intentional or not, bugged me and therefore made me hate this character (because I like Fargo a lot and didn’t appreciate the ripoff).
  • The author filled her small town with “quirky” characters just for the sake of having quirky characters. Why did the librarian have to be a smelly, non-showering bodybuilder? Yes, she lifted weights 20 years ago so she could defend herself against her abusive husband, but there was never an explanation given as to why she continued to do so after two decades. And what about the no-shower policy? Again, don’t expect an explanation for that.
  • Of course the small town cops were depicted as bumbling fools who couldn’t find their own assholes with a map. This is such a tired cliche, and yet it crops up over and over again in these kinds of novels. Sigh. (Incidentally, with all the mishandling of evidence and the coerced confession, I wonder how they can even build a legally sound case against Dave.)

Rating:

I got Bone by Bone from the library because the blurb on the back of the book made it sound very intriguing. Score one for the marketing department. The reality for me was quite different, so I’m giving this book just 2 stars out of 5.

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There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

March 17, 2014

no children here Sumary (from Wikipedia): There are No Children Here follows the lives of two young brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, who live in the Henry Horner Homes, one of Chicago’s subsidized housing projects in the inner city. Lafeyette and Pharoah, aged 11 and 9 years at the start of the book in 1987, live with their mother, along with their many siblings periodically, and rely on welfare and federal assistance. The book depicts them deprived of most luxuries and in constant struggle to survive. The burden of their struggle falls on Lafeyette’s shoulders as he tries to protect his brother and help his mother with their daily needs. The brothers live in the midst of violence wrought by local gangs who control the entire housing project. The gangs sell drugs, fight rival gangs, hire residents to keep and store drugs and weapons, and lure children to sell drugs in the neighborhood. Children living in the projects seem to have a bleak future awaiting them if they manage to survive to adulthood.

Reaction:

I really liked the premise of this book. I had never heard of the Henry Horner Homes before, and thought it would be incredibly intriguing to get an inside account of what it was like to grow up in one of the worst public housing projects in Chicago. And initially, Kotlowitz delivered on this promise. The first 1/3 to 1/2 of the book was gripping, as I was drawn into Lafeyette and Pharoah’s world of gangs, drugs, poverty, shootings, and other random violence. The details came fast and furious, and kept me turning the pages.

But then things started to feel rather repetitive, with Kotlowitz more or less just enumerating all the problems the boys and the Rivers (real name: Walton) family had to endure on a daily basis: The overcrowded apartment, lack of food, lack of new clothes for school, drippy bathtub faucet, absentee/drug-addicted father, gang problems, etc. etc. I mean, I get that this is what the family actually lived through every day, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to be subjected to the info over and over again.

That being said, I think the kids–Pharoah in particular–come off very well in the book. They are shown to resist the temptations that others in their situation so readily succumb to, and they managed to mostly steer clear of conflicts with the law (at least during the period about which Kotlowitz was writing). That was a rather remarkable accomplishment in itself, and due credit must be given to the kids (and perhaps to their mother, LaJoe, as well — though her track record with her other kids and her penchant for all-night gambling sprees stops me short of awarding her “Mother of the Year” status).

Since this book was originally published in 1992, I was hoping that a new edition would be available with updates on how the boys’ lives have turned out. That wasn’t the case with the copy I got from the library, but I was able to find a relatively recent (2011) article online. Unfortunately, both Lafeyette and Pharoah ended up serving time in prison and both are still caught in the vicious cycle of poverty into which they were born. I was hoping at least one of them would make it (Pharoah seemed to have the best chance), but I also know the odds were not in his favor — to put it mildly.

Rating:

There Are No Children Here started out well, but didn’t have enough steam to maintain that momentum all the way through. While the tale of the two Rivers siblings and their family had some interesting moments, I feel that there just wasn’t enough noteworthy material for a whole book. This is one of those in-between topics that isn’t well-suited for a particular medium: there’s too much for a newspaper or magazine piece, but not enough for a book of this length. Overall, I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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Wheat Belly by William Davis

March 14, 2014

wheat belly Summary (from the publisher): Every day, over 200 million Americans consume food products made of wheat. As a result, over 100 million of them experience some form of adverse health effect, ranging from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that preventive cardiologist William Davis calls “wheat bellies.” According to Davis, that excess fat has nothing to do with gluttony, sloth, or too much butter: It’s due to the whole grain wraps we eat for lunch.

After witnessing over 2,000 patients regain their health after giving up wheat, Davis reached the disturbing conclusion that wheat is the single largest contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic—and its elimination is key to dramatic weight loss and optimal health. In Wheat Belly, Davis exposes the harmful effects of what is actually a product of genetic tinkering and agribusiness being sold to the American public as “wheat”—and provides readers with a user-friendly, step-by-step plan to navigate a new, wheat-free lifestyle. Informed by cutting-edge science and nutrition, along with case studies from men and women who have experienced life-changing transformations in their health after waving goodbye to wheat, Wheat Belly is an illuminating look at what is truly making Americans sick and an action plan to clear our plates of this seemingly benign ingredient.

Reaction:

As someone interested in a healthier diet, I’ve been looking into different opinions on carbs (which have always been my downfall). I don’t think they’re all bad for you, as some Atkins/Keto followers would have you believe. But I do believe in the nutritional differences between, say, a bowl of oatmeal and a brownie. Duh. Davis’ book seemed like another interesting piece of the puzzle. Going in, I didn’t have a firm opinion one way or the other about wheat. It was part of my diet and I do have an image of it being “healthy”, but I wasn’t exactly a champion of the grain, nor did I go out of my way to avoid it.

I have to say I was surprised by all the negative aspects of wheat Davis presents in this book. I had no idea that what we use today is so genetically different than wheat used in ancient times. I also had no idea that wheat was used in so many different products, including non-bread/non-bakery items where you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find it (think soy sauce or licorice). So if nothing else, Wheat Belly is making me take some longer looks at food labels (something I haven’t been doing much of recently).

Where this book turns a bit controversial (at least for me) is when Davis concludes that so many health problems stem from consuming wheat. Not over-consumption, mind you. Just simple consumption in any amount. I am naturally averse to extremes like this, and can’t believe — unless in cases of serious medical side-effects — that anyone would have to give up any and all wheat consumption just to be thin, fit, and healthy. Sure, wheat belly, I can buy that. Spikes and subsequent crashes in blood glucose levels…makes sense. But Davis goes even farther than that, and blames wheat consumption for everything from joint pain to skin problems and heart conditions. This is where he sort of lost me, but I kept reading anyway.

The rest of the book was filled with case studies, examples, and research that are intended to prop up Davis’ position. In this way, he makes a fairly convincing case; however, it would have been very helpful for Davis to discuss some counterpoints and show why those opposing views are wrong. He didn’t really do that, except to basically say: “Americans have been eating wheat products for 50 years and now there’s an obesity problem. Let’s cut out the wheat and watch the pounds melt away.” There could be plenty of other causes for the obesity epidemic besides wheat!

Rating:

I thought a lot of the information presented in Wheat Belly was eye-opening and useful. I was already on my way to cutting out most (but certainly not all) wheat products from my diet, and this book will likely serve as another catalyst in making the switch. I’m in no position to speak directly to the medical or scientific aspects of what Davis presents here, but at least he cites his sources and some of his conclusions seem to make sense. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain

March 9, 2014

kill you twice Plot summary (from the publisher): Nothing makes Portland detective Archie Sheridan happier than knowing that Beauty Killer Gretchen Lowell is locked away in a psych ward. Archie can finally heal from the near-fatal physical and emotional wounds she’s inflicted on him and start moving on with his life. Or can he? His latest case, involving a man who was mutilated and murdered in a public park in broad daylight, bears the stamp of an expert killer…and before long, Archie gets a message from Gretchen, who makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

Gretchen claims to have inside knowledge about the grisly Mount Tabor Park murder—and Archie can’t risk losing his only lead in the case. At least, that’s what he tells himself after he agrees to visit Gretchen…But the ties between Archie and Gretchen have always been stronger, deeper, and more complex than he’s willing to admit, even to himself. What game is Gretchen playing this time? And even more frightening, what long-hidden secrets from her past have been dredged up that someone would kill to protect?

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Susan Ward was once again the strongest character in the book. She far outshines Archie at this point, and I find her scenes to be much more interesting than anything he’s involved in. That kind of shows you how far Archie has fallen.
  • Leo’s secret is finally out! So now Susan realizes she’s dating an undercover DEA agent instead of a “lawyer” whose father is a major drug kingpin. Leo got to break the news in spectacular fashion too, by busting in on the church standoff at the end and rescuing everybody. I liked that scene.
  • The case in this book was actually fairly intriguing. The killer was obviously motivated by Gretchen, but I couldn’t quite figure out their connection, which kept me turning the pages.
  • It was good to finally get some of Gretchen’s backstory, though the troubled, abused, pregnant teen/foster kid angle wasn’t very original.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t believe for one second that some hot young thing would prance around in a bikini and practically throw herself at Archie. Seriously? Yeah, I get that some women like “damaged goods”, but this Rachel character was going way too far. In fact, I thought she might have been Gretchen’s daughter and was knowingly seducing Archie to fuck with his head a little more — that’s how unbelievable the whole scenario was.
  • And speaking of women who have no business being attracted to Archie, why would Susan still want him now that she has Leo and knows about Leo’s good side? Ugh, it doesn’t make sense! What makes it even worse, of course, is that Archie is “still not over” Gretchen. GAG!!!!
  • So Gretchen escapes from yet another detention facility. Good god, this is getting old! Yes, this time she had help from a police officer, so it was slightly more believable than the time she got her shrink to fall under her spell (cue eye-roll), but still. It just makes everyone connected to Portland law enforcement look stunningly incompetent.
  • Want even more proof of their incompetence? Knowing that this serial killer is out on the loose, they still allow her enough space to meet with Archie? WTF?! The meeting point was supposedly “surrounded” by snipers and SWAT units, but — surprise, surprise! — Gretchen manages to slip through the perimeter simply by causing an explosive device to go off. Why, oh WHY would the police let Gretchen lounge around in the grass with Archie having a lengthy, casual chat AND NOT MOVE IN UNTIL SHE WAS READY TO LEAVE??? It’s not like they needed to wait for her to confess to something!!
  • Of course now that Gretchen is on the loose, there’s going to be at least one more book about her and Archie. Sigh. Let’s hope the series ends there, because Cain has milked the “relationship” between Archie and Gretchen long enough. The whole situation already strains credibility, and prolonging the farce isn’t going to do much good. Keep Archie and Susan, lose Gretchen, and get some new antagonists in the mix.
  • Although I did like new murder case, I thought it was a bit too convenient that both the killer and his small-town sheriff sister were operating under false identities and were in fact Gretchen’s old foster siblings.

Rating:

Kill You Twice was quite a step up from the previous two books in the Archie Sheridan-Gretchen Lowell series, and had a number of positive points that made it an interesting enough read. That said, Gretchen Lowell has overstayed her welcome and ought to be dealt with once and for all. It’s time for Archie — and author Cain — to move on from her. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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