Posted by: istop4books | August 29, 2011

MOLOKA’I by Alan Brennert

My Aunt Viola, born about the same time as Rachel in 1891,  used to tell me that, “if life give you lemons, make lemonade dearie.”  In my 54 years life has thrown me a lemon or two, a challenge here and there and a couple of heartbreaks – but never leprosy.  Rachel, at age 7 was thrown a boatload of lemons when she was diagnosed with the dreaded, awful-in-biblical proportions disease of Leprosy

Alan Brennert has written an epic story of the history of Moloka’i, the leper colony/island designated by the officials as the place where lepers would go to live and ultimately die, in quarantine, away from society, family and friends.  Told through the eyes of Rachel , a happy, friendly little 7 year old girl who has the misfortune of getting the disease, she is yanked, literally yanked, from the arms of her parents to go live on an island in an institution with a bunch of nuns.  She’s not alone as the island is a virtual prison for all Hawaiians who have succumbed to this nightmare, which from the late 1800’s that the book begins until mid century, was misunderstood, mistreated and untreatable.    It carried with it a stigma of dirtiness, shame, contagion, ignorance.  Brennert expertly weaves in the history of the island, the introduction of aviation, modern medicine, electricity and plumbing, as well as advances in medicine and treatments – with the passage of time of the inhabitants of the colony.  His research into the subject was extensive, and he treats parts which under someone else’s pen would have become a sappy mess, with integrity, honesty and gripping emotions without becoming emotional.

The ramifications of leprosy are chronicled through the stories of the families left behind in Honolulu or some of the other islands, who must hide, change their names, grieve for their losses quietly – lest someone at a school or at a workplace find out and cause a healthy relative of a leper to get fired or be asked to leave or be shunned.  For Japanese immigrants the double whammy consisted in their personal shame and desire to obliterate all memory of the family member who contracted the disease.

 Not to give the wrong impression and back to my lemonade analogy or metaphor or whatever the hell it is – people on the island made lemonade by the bucketful.  Their sickness, lack of health, heck – lack of limbs and deformities – did not define them.  They struggled to maintain some semblance of ordinary life in the face of truly extraordinary circumstances. They became each other’s support system, the family they no longer had – not without missing and yearning for the life they had, but certainly making the best of what horrific odds life had given them.  It IS a book full of hope, of spiritualism, of kindness and good karma. It’s a book that makes you think, that connects you to Rachel and makes you feel for her.  I’m not a crier – I might be hormonal, but I’m no crier – and this one had me tearing up several times. 

The author follows Rachel, who is one of the lucky ones with a slow-developing form of the disease, through adolescence and into marriage, the many friends and relationships she makes and loses on the island and through her we see the evolution of the island, the effects of WWII, the progression of medicine. 

Before I finished the book, I took a look at youtube looking for references to Moloka’i and leprosy.  I wanted to see what was real – and I saw on youtube exactly what Brennert described – an island of hope and tragedy, of sorrow and loneliness, an illness which devastates and people who deal with it with serenity, grace and hope.

Posted by: istop4books | August 17, 2011

Chicago, Al Aswany

This book started out with a bang. I told my husband I thought he would like it, I thought maybe I’d lend it to my son it was that good. But as I read further, I thought maybe it was my scatterbrain’s fault that I didn’t know who all the characters were from chapter to chapter. Maybe I should have started an index card cheat sheet to keep them all in order. The transitions were clumsy and trying to remember the plot of one chapter 4 chapters later was tricky.

Some of the characterizations of the Egyptians in this novel seem to be good. The political views were indeed interesting. Not being well versed in Egyptian politics I have no claim to question the views presented. Some of the observations of the Egyptian émigrés of America and the difficulties of understanding such a different culture, of being without family and a bit bewildered were insightful. But by page 100, the book started falling apart with one clichéd character after another. A black woman fired for her race (in post 9/11 in Chicago???) who then couldn’t find work anywhere (during the economic boom?) Health insurance (for a professor in a university) which is so expensive it leaves no additional money for extras. It just seemed like the author used topics which do occur such as racism and astronomical health care costs – and applied them at the wrong time to the wrong character in the book. He had a couple of mixed race who couldn’t walk down a Chicago street without observing hateful looks, blatant racism against Egyptians in a post-doctoral or PhD setting in Chicago? In Aswany’s world women are weak in matters of the heart no matter how strong and intelligent they are in other areas. I lived in Chicago from 1989 to 2004 – it just wasn’t so.
By page 250 I was barely into the book. It seemed more like short stories very loosely tied together by a thread of Egypt, Chicago and histology – but never really meeting in a central place.
In the end, it was just unsatisfying. I really enjoyed The Yacubian Building a few years ago – this one I wouldn’t even recommend to anyone. Even if you can get over the blatant mistakes about American Culture and history (at the start of the book he mentions that Chicago got its nickname from the heavy winds off of Lake Michigan – total mistake), the translation creates flat, stunted language and dialog that begins to annoy early on.

Posted by: istop4books | August 5, 2011


Little Bee

Little Bee drew me in from page one. Unlike others, I did not read the front or back covers, so I didn’t know it was supposed to “change my life” or that parts of it were “hilarious.” It was a short book that I could slip in my bag. As I had no expectations, I completed enjoyed reading this book and did so quickly. I thought it was a moving and thoughtful look into our preconceived notions of Africa, Africans, refugees, the easy life, marriage and relationships.

Told from the point of view of Little Bee, a young refugee from Nigeria, it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of many who suffer in Africa from prosecution, shrunk down to her own, personal horrific experience of having to leave Nigeria, being incarcerated (or more politically correct – detained) in a refugee center for two years outside London and a reencounter with her past.

Also told from the point of view of Sarah, a suburban, career oriented, white, well to do wife and mother who travels to Nigeria on a whim and whose life will forever be changed due to a brief encounter on the beach.

Interestingly enough, a male author captured fairly well the voices of two very distinct women, perhaps succeeding in Little Bee’s voice a bit more than Sarah’s, however these characters were relevant, he avoided clichés and provided believable thoughts, actions and dialog – with one exception: the kid. I was not a fan of little batman.

In the book Cleve deals with issues of immigration, refugee status, and the arrogance of the western world. I liked it. Would probably rate it a 4.5, but I’m feeling generous today. Cleve’s writing is poetic. The quotes above are only a sampling and each quote worthy of an essay. Little Bee’s voice, in simplistic English, perhaps more profound and certainly wiser than the college educated journalists in the book.

Posted by: istop4books | August 4, 2011

The Glass Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers is Daphne Du Maurier’s historical novel which actually delves into her own ancestry, telling the story of a family of glass makers living and working during the French Revolution. I have read several of Du Maurier’s books, always with gusto, however this one fell short and disappointed me. Her historical information was relevant and interesting, however her characters were less than engaging and somewhat two-dimensional. I failed to feel for them or care for what they did.
We’ve heard the story of the French Revolution, in particular I’ve read a couple of biographies of Marie Antoinette, but this is told from the point of view of Sophie Busson, the daughter in a family of merchants; people who were not privileged in the sense that the nobility was, they worked for their livings after all, but compared to many in Europe at that time, they were indeed in a class of their own. Educated, living in good solid homes and earning a living at a prestigious trade set them apart from many. Sophie’s brother, Robert proved an interesting character, as he was brought up in very close contact to the nobility from whom his parents leased their factory. He was influenced by this superior class of people and this affected him in all aspects of his later life as he felt a sense of entitlement to the good things in life, whether he worked for them or not. Not too different from what happens in today’s society.
The story continues through the War of the Vendée and the Nationalist movement while events occurring in Paris seem to be happening somewhere distant. In general Du Maurier stays close to the Busson family and to what affects them.
I thought the book was OK; I didn’t love it and in fact, skimmed bits and sped-read through others. Very unusual for a du Maurier book.

Posted by: istop4books | June 17, 2011

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

I enjoyed this book in an easy, breezy way, as a quick summer read with an interesting Salem witch hunt topic.

I didn’t love it. The cover promised a novel that “flows with poetic charm and eloquence that achieves high literary merit while concocting a gripping supernatural puzzler…spellbinding.”

Um, no. There was no poetic charm, it wasn’t particularly gripping and was definitely not spellbinding. It was a good first novel written by a young woman whose two ancestors were part of the Salem witch trials. She brings us Connie Goodman, a PhD candidate at Harvard who, while cleaning out her late grandmother’s house, stumbles on some information leading her to believe there might be an original physick (think medical) book of one of her ancestors, Deliverance Dane. It could be vital to her PhD research, it could be just an accounting book, or it could possible list recipes for magic potions. It also could have been lost or destroyed over the years. What ensues is a bit of genealogy and tracing the whereabouts of the book, some conniving bad-guy treachery, a bit of romance and some magical powers thrown in. Howe transitions between 20th century research and 17th century life. Her attention to small details in dress and habits of 17th century woman is very good

“Kill them all, God will know His own” 

When questioned by a crusader on how to recognize true Catholics from Heretics during the battle at Bezier in 1209, this was the answer from a papal legate. Subsequently, 20,000 people were massacred.

The story of the Albigensian Crusade and the extermination of the Cathars by members of the Catholic Church by orders of the Pope in 13th C France is one that is not widely known The Crusade was a win-win situation for both the Church and the nobility of Languedoc, a region of France.  The Catholic church would eliminate a faction of heretics and gain enormous wealth as they confiscated land and belongings of the heretics, and the French knights would also gain enormous benefits from participating in a crusade. 


Barnham tells it very well through the narrative of Jeanne, a young girl, found in a field as a baby after the mass extermination of 20,000 Cathars and Cathar sympathizers in Beziers. She is brought up in a Chathar household, but develops an independent streak which makes her flawed, rebellious, questioning and very human.

As an old lady she tells her story in bits and pieces to a man who has befriended and sheltered her. The narrative moves between her present time and the past easily, although the scenes of the ruthless Inquisition are hard to read. Stories of mass burnings and brutal torture scenes emerge, but she also tells of the almost cult-like entrancement of the Cathar people as they collectively gather to be burned alive at the stake (almost reminding me of Jonestown in the 1970’s). As Jeanne was one of the 300+ people held under seige at Montsegur, she retells this part of history well in addition to her part in keeping the Cathar belief and treasure from total extermination.

A big fault with the book: typos and faulty proofreading – totally unacceptable.

Posted by: istop4books | May 14, 2011

Portuguese Irregular Verbs, Alexander McCall Smith

This book is a short easy read, although not the laugh-out-loud funny that it was advertised to be. It’s called an

“entertainment” book, almost a series of short stories revolving around the ever-challenged Professor

Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. The vignettes are amusing, some more than others, however I think it

helps to be a bit older, and maybe a Brit at heart to appreciate them as written. From an heartbreaking

infatuation to a nose-altering duel, he manages to muddle from one incident to the next. The issue for

me is that it was not compelling and took me quite a while to settle in to the type of humor that McCall writes. Great for a short flight or to keep in the car and read while waiting here and there.

Posted by: istop4books | May 14, 2011

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hillenga


This book started out with a bang and went downhill from there.  It wasn’t awful, it wasn’t even bad – it just wasn’t what it could have been, or maybe what I expected. The back cover promises exquisiteness, appeal from the first paragraph, adventure under pressure, intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and more…  It’s a “nice” novel with a couple of sex scenes thrown in, tastefully done.

Margot, a 20 something book conservator from Chicago takes off for Italy with a couple of bucks in her purse after severe flooding in Florence has damaged some of the city’s most treasured works of art and literature.  She and a host of others volunteer to work there to restore these world treasures.  She winds up living in a convent (home to a small but important library) and not only gets to know the nuns, but enters into a liaison with Sandro, the mother superior’s cousin.  Unfortunately, Sandro is 50 something and married.  Not hardly a “forbidden” lover in the European sense.  While at the convent, digging through the mess of damaged volumes a prayer book is found, and bound inside the prayer book is a unique volume of erotic prints and poems. Here starts her adventure (or lack of adventure).  There really was very little intrigue, adventure, nobody followed her, attempted to swipe the book or challenged her in any way.  There was really not a whole lot of mention of what these 16 pleasures were either; perhaps one or two plates were described in broad terms, but the book fell short right there and never recovered.  <br/>I loved reading about Florence and the process of restoration – the challenge of removing a 500 year old fresco from a church wall was fascinating – but I had to go back at one point to situate myself in time.  Only when Sandro mentioned WWII did I realize this was not set in modern times but in the 60s.  Margot’s voice (she narrates parts of the book) is also a bit off.  Nothing spectacularly wrong with it, but when a male author gives the narration over to a female, the perspective can often just not sit right.  I don’t believe it sat right in this book.

A part of the book which was brilliant (as I said, it wasn’t all bad) was the description of a Catholic annulment of marriage.  Holy cow!  Leave it to a bunch of celibate men to do penis measurements and vaginal corroborations. Well worth reading if only for that chapter.

And the nuns and convent life?  I think he did a decent job, but I didn’t get Margot’s reaction towards the end of the book.  I thought it was bizarre and won’t say more without a spoiler alert.

All in all, a mixed bag.

Posted by: istop4books | May 9, 2011

Where Men Win Glory, the Odyssey of Pat Tillman

I heard on one of the Sunday morning talk shows this week that. “a military officer will give up his life for his country, but never ask him to give up his career.” This was mentioned in light of the killing of Bin Ladin, but as I was reading Where Men Win Glory, that phrase kept going around in my head.

I thought I knew something of the Pat Tillman case, not that I’m a news junkie, but I thought I had a vague idea. I didn’t. I had no idea of exactly what had happened because that first impression stuck. The news that we all heard that he’d been killed in an ambush was what stuck in my mind. When I subsequently heard it had been friendly fire “probably” as the press release read, I digested the information, but had no real idea of the how, who, where or why. This book cleared that up for me.

My son entered the army and did his basic in the hell hole that is Fort Benning. And Fort Benning offers deluxe accommodations compared to where he got stuck afterwards. So I get it. I understand why Tillman enlisted – and I honestly think that not a single kid enlists thinking he’s the one who’s going to die. They are invincible, it’ll happen to someone else and they are the ones who are going to kick butt. I get it.

Krakauer gives us the details of Tillman’s life leading up to his enlistment, his high school career, friendships, family relationships and motivations. He goes into a fairly hefty amount of detail on his NFL career, most of which went over my head as I don’t know the difference between a running back and a quarter back. But what I did discern from this is that Tillman was essentially a good kid, type-A, thrill seeker, challenging himself both physically and mentally , an outside the box thinker. He went against his Mormon upbringing, against the national wave of belief in the war in Iraq, he threw himself off a cliff to cling to a pine tree for the thrill of it. He had moral values and questioned his motives. He didn’t move through life as in a daze, he gave it some thought and wrote those thoughts down in journals which are quoted here extensively. He was a likeable guy, honorable and kind; a good son, a caring husband, a loving brother.

But shit happens and apparently a lot more than civilians realize. I had no idea that 21% of casualties in WWII were attributable to friendly fire, 39% in Vietnam. Who knew? And as shocking and distressing as these numbers are, I can wrap my head around them and chuck them up to the ugly price of waging war. There’s chaos, confusion, smoke, fear, nerves and noise and nobody’s figured a way around that yet.

What is unconscionable, disgusting, unpardonable, despicable and unbelievably self-serving is what the US Army and the government of the country Tillman was serving, attempted to do to boost their policies of misinformation. And they came damn close to getting away with it. The book outlines the chain of command, the minute by minute orders which were issued, who challenged the orders, who didn’t, and the ensuing bait and switch that went on. To me, the final coup de grace was trying to dupe the American public by issuing a press statement on Memorial Day, so we’d be so distracted by our picnics that we wouldn’t notice the wool which had just been pulled over our collective eyes.

“A military officer will give up his life for his country but don’t ask him to give up his career.” Where was the honor, the truth, the flipping freedom that these officers were supposedly fighting for? Was it honorable to let Tillman’s brother, wife and mother think he’d been killed in battle in order to further the agenda of Bush’s administration? What part of fighting for the freedom that comes with giving American citizens the truth did those officers not understand? We as Americans don’t put up with getting misinformation, watered down information, or sanitized information. Would they have lost their careers had they stood for the truth? Had they said they would not fabricate a story to be used in the propaganda of a war created by the Bush-Chaney administration? Maybe. Would they have upheld the honor that they were supposedly fighting for? For sure.

In the end, Krakauer exposes information which appeared in a myriad of publications in a format which is highly readable and only somewhat biased by what I perceived to be anger at the magnitude of the coverup and the deception of the administration. It’s not only recommended, it’s a must read.

Posted by: istop4books | April 28, 2011


“A gifted social observer, Brooks makes some valid points regarding the duality of the human mind, but he too often bases his conclusions on questionable data and unduplicated experiments, “commit[ing] a variety of statistical errors and tiptoe[ing] through a minefield of contradictory evidence” (Wall Street Journal). The Social Animal may not be the last word in neuroscience, but it nonetheless provides an engaging and thought-provoking tour of the human mind. Bookmarks magazine.”

Let’s be clear: this is not the end all examination of the human mind meant for scholars. This is pop-psychology meets sociology-lite. He himself says, “[this book] is an attempt to integrate science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success.” He looks at the unconscious mind and how it influences our feelings, opinions, education levels, success and lives in general. Brooks is insightful, readable and great for further discussions around the kitchen table. He illustrates his conclusions through the narrative of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica from pre-birth to death, and their success in life. Coming from two distinct backgrounds and two very diverse personalities, they go through life oblivious to the inner background of the decisions that have taken them through life. Why they picked the roads they chose is thoughtfully analyzed through the book.

Some of the tidbits that I highlighted along the way (and there are quite a few of them, so I’ve left my commentary to a minimum):

  • Page 11: Vocabulary as a form of measuring IQ: “People tend to choose spouses of similar intelligence.” In other words, they don’t rationally measure IQ, but at some level are measuring the people around them, and one way they do it is through vocabulary:
    “People with an 80IQ recognize words such as fabric, enormous and conceal but not sentence, consume and commerce

    “People with 90IQ will probably know, sentence, consume and commerce but not designate, ponder or reluctant

  • Off the wall nuts: Compensating for physical or other lacking qualities: short men “grow” with an additional $175,000 of income to the stature of a 6 ft man; rich men marry younger women, the beauty of a woman is a strong indicator of the wealth of her spouse – all these indicators are not looked by two dating people or analyzed, they are simply processed and left somewhere in a back pocket of the brain.
  • Page 19: “emotions measure the value of something, and help unconsciously guide us as we navigate through life—away from things that are likely to lead to pain and toward things that are likely to lead to fulfillment.”
  • Page 41: “the ability to unconsciously share another’s pain is a building block of empathy, and through that emotion, morality.” Without empathy, morality is blurred and at its extreme, sociopathic behavior develops.
  • Social cognition within groups: pages 76-> He talks about the ability to walk into a room full of people and scan it within seconds and come to conclusions regarding pecking orders, leaders, jesters, peacemakers, daredevil, organizer. What he says about girl groups resonated with me, I feel that it goes beyond high school (US centric) and permeates grown women. He describes a troika: Girl 1 is hot, girl 2 is the sidekick and girl 3 is “less attractive one who is the object of the other two’s loving condescension.” Girl 3 gets replaced often.
  • Food for thought and discussion; page 78: “the adult personality, including political views – is forever defined in opposition to one’s natural enemies in high school.” Wow. That’s quite a statement, but looking back does it have a grain of truth? Maybe more? It’s hard for me to say as I didn’t go to a US hs. But later on, in work situations? Perhaps.
  • Page 106 talks about the differences in bringing up lower vs middle class kids and the tremendous difference it makes in their later lives, moreso than IQ or work ethics. The huge advantages of being brought up with educated parents makes coming from a poor background and trying to make it similar to climbing Mt. Everest – nearly impossible. On an hourly basis, professional children hear 487 utterances. Welfare kids hear 178. Page 107: Children from a poor population have an 8.6% chance of getting a college degree. …top quarter kids have a 75% chance. Most of the differences have to do with unconscious skills – attitudes, perceptions and norms learned during the first 18 years of life. Simply stunning.
  • Page 123: Self control as a predictor of high school performance: some researchers say it’s twice as important as IQ. I’m not so sure about that, but I do think that without self control no amount of IQ will help.
  • Page 152: Social/ethnic groups and their socio-economic rise: “Cultures do not exist as simply static differences to be celebrated. They compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done – better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the peoples themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.” In this area Brooks skated around and pretty much cowarded away from touching the plight of the African American family here in the States. He talks about Dominicans vs Haitians, Jews and Italians and Chinese Americans, but doesn’t really go into clarifying why the great divides of work ethics, life expectancy, corruption, education. Cultural subcultures as being an enormous factor in our lives.
  • Page 166: He touches on the importance of mental character, used in conjunction with IQ to make decisions, life decisions. To think about the various possibilities, weigh the alternatives, and ponder the outcomes will contribute heavily to correct decision making.
  • Page 177: “People who succeed tend to find one goal in the distant future and then chase it through thick and thin. Schools ask students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever.” Interesting concept – my question is how will a kid know what he wants unless he is exposed to and challenged in many different fields of study during high school?
  • Page 181: The power of subliminal messages blows my mind, if these are indeed well researched statements. “If you tell somebody stories about high achievement just before they perform some test or exercise, they will perform better than if you had not told them those stories. …If you play into negative stereotypes, they will do worse.” Priming, anchoring and framing is what marketers do with their products and what makes us buy a more expensive product than we meant to, or accede to have a procedure done – it all depends on how you hear the pitch. Are we that naïve? Does this stuff really permeate our daily lives? I’m afraid the answer is probably yes.
  • Page 204: he talks about perceptions. That we judge ourselves by our intentions, our friends by their deeds and our rivals by their mistakes. If that ain’t the truth I don’t know what is.
  • P. 238: I loved this: he’s illustrating how bad at math our unconscious mind is with the following question: “Let’s say you spent $1.10 on a pen and pad of paper. If you spent a dollar more for the pad than the pen, how much did the pen cost?” What was your first answer, the one that just came to the top of your head? Most likely it was that the pen cost 10 cents. Duh. Well, that would be wrong.
  • Page 288: here Brooks touches on Moral development and how we achieve it through relationships, habits and practices, habits. Structured rules of etiquette, (like the fork goes on the left) which may seem trivial, “but nudge us to practice little acts of self-control. They strengthen networks in the brain.” I’m not sure how, still mulling over this concept, although I’m a big enforcer of fork-on-the-left type rules. For me they are very meaningful, but I could never even begin to enunciate why. Brooks goes on to add our conversations as a point of development, and institutions such as family, school and our professions which impart rules which tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do.
  • Page 321: This is the crux of what Brooks is talking about: Relationships. He talks about politics and governments and says, “Everything came down to character, and that meant everything came down to the quality of relationships, because relationships are the seedbeds of character. The reason life and politics are so hard is that relationships are the most important, but also the most difficult, things to understand.” To this effect he states that, “you can pump money into poor areas, but without cultures that foster self-control, you won’t get social mobility.” Agreed.
  • Page 327: Economic rewards of an education: “median American with a graduate degree is part of a family making $93,000/yr. ..with a college degree is in a family making $75,000…with a high-school degree is in a family making $42,000, and the average high school dropout is in a family making $28,000.” Stunning statistics, however, not everyone can go to college either because of cost or ability. Are they all destined to the 42 grand a year life?
  • Page 329-330: Difference in college educated and non college educated families (a real eye opener): “Over 2/3s of middle class children are raised in intact two-parent families, while less than a third of poor children are raised in them. About half the students in community colleges have either been pregnant or gotten somebody pregnant.” While both groups want many of the same things, the more educated people have more emotional resources to execute their visions. “If you get married before having children, graduate from high school, and work full time, there is a 98% chance that you will not live in poverty.” “Show up for the job interview, take the SAT test you registered for. Study for the final so you can graduate from college. Don’t quit your job just because it’s boring or because you’ve got a minor crisis at home. …there is no substitute for individual responsibility and no prospect for success unless people are held accountable for their decisions and work relentlessly to achieve their goals.”
  • Page 365, Sunlight and Nature: “Sunlight and natural scenes can have a profound effect on mind and mood. People in northern latitudes, where the sunlight is less bright, have higher rates of depression than people in lower latitudes. So do people on the western edges of time zones, where the run rises later in the mornings.”

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