Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nonfiction Review: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

My book group met last week to discuss The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin and just about everyone expressed the same opinion. We were all worried it would be dry and difficult to read and were all pleasantly surprised by how fascinating the book turned out to be. I knew the book was going to be interesting when - shortly into the first chapters – I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband. Most people also agreed it was well written, though a few felt there was some repetition. One thing is certain: we all learned a great deal and the book gave us plenty to talk about.

After an introductory prologue, Toobin begins in 1980 with President Reagan’s election and writes in great detail about each of the Justices, their backgrounds and personalities and how they were nominated and confirmed (something that has become much more difficult in recent years). As he moves through the years chronologically, he also describes some of the most significant and controversial cases tried by the Supreme Court, with an inside view into how the cases were decided.

It’s this inside view that makes Toobin’s book so fascinating. He strips away the awe of the Court and shows readers what the justices are like, as real people, not just judges. Although later chapters go into much greater detail, here’s a small glimpse into this insider’s view from the prologue, as Toobin describes each Justice standing on the steps of the Court during Chief Justice Rehnquist’s funeral in 2005:

The casket first passed Stephen G. Breyer, appointed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. Such ceremonial duty ill suited Breyer, who still had the gregarious good nature of a Capitol Hill insider rather than the grim circumspection of a stereotypical judge. He had just turned sixty-seven but looked a decade younger, with his bald head nicely tanned by long bike rides and bird-watching expeditions. Few justices had ever taken to the job with more enthusiasm or enjoyed it more.

Breyer’s twitchy exuberance posed a contrast to the demeanor of his fellow Clinton nominee, from 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, standing three steps above him. At seventy-two, she was tiny and frail – she clasped Breyer’s arm on the way down. Elegantly and expensively turned out as usual, on this day in widow’s weeds, she was genuinely bereft to see Rehnquist go. Their backgrounds and politics could scarcely have differed more – the Lutheran conservative from the Milwaukee suburbs and the Jewish liberal from Brooklyn – but they shared a love of legal procedure. Always a shy outsider, Ginsburg knew that the chief’s death would send her even farther from the Court’s mainstream.

While I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the critical events and cases discussed in the book, I was fascinated to learn what went on behind the scenes. Of particular interest were the groundbreaking cases on issues like civil rights, abortion, and separation of church and state. Toobin also covers the inside view of the contested 2000 election in great detail, as well as recent selections of justices and their often controversial confirmation processes. All of this was particularly relevant to read right now, in the midst of the selection of a new justice to replace Souter. It’s enlightening to learn what goes on behind the scenes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It’s Tuesday, 5/26! What Are You Reading?

I’m a day late today because of the holiday weekend. Last week was a great reading week:
  • I finished The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Everyone in my book group agreed it was fascinating. Review coming in the next couple of days…
  • I was sick toward the end of the week but a great novel saved the day! I read The Girl She Used To Be by David Cristofano all in a single day and loved it. It’s the story of a woman who’s been in the Witness Protection Program since she was 6 years old and is still running from the mob boss who forced her family into exile. Great book – review to come soon.
  • I read a teen novel, 20 Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler. I was put off by the title at first, thinking it was a typical shallow teen romance, but it turned out to be an excellent novel exploring the aftermath of a tragic teen death. I’m glad I read it and will be reviewing it on my other blog, Great Books for Kids and Teens.
  • Now I’m onto a novel I got from the library, Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge. It’s good so far, but I’m still in the first chapter!
I wasn't able to write much last week after I got sick, so I have a great backlog of reviews coming up this week...stay tuned!

What are YOU reading this week?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Top Ten Authors I've Never Read


This week's Top 10 list is a little unusual. Instead of listing some of the top ten books I've read, today I'm focusing on books I haven't read. This list is a little embarrassing, but here are:

The Top 10 Famous (in many cases, classic) Authors I Can't Believe I've Never Read:
  • Jane Austen
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Toni Morrison
  • Philip Roth
  • Norman Mailer
  • John Updike
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • H.G. Wells
  • Ernest Hemingway
Are there famous authors you've never read?

And can you recommend any favorite books by the above authors that I should read?

Monday, May 18, 2009

It's Monday, 5/18! What Are You Reading?

Last week, I finished:
  • Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), an excellent teen novel by Justina Chen Headley (see my review at Great Books for Kids and Teens)
  • Audio version of The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg, which was also very good.
This week, I'm reading:
  • The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. I was worried this book would be dry, but it's very well-written and fascinating. I still have 130 pages to go before my book group meets on Wednesday night! This one should spark some great discussions.
  • I'm listening to the audiobook Flipped, a middle-grade novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. I'm not too far into it yet, but it's good so far.
  • We're also reading another middle-grade novel aloud with our two sons: Double Eagle by Sneed B. Collard III (I'm not making that up!) - an exciting story of two boys who find a rare Confederate coin in Alabama.
As always, I'll post reviews here and at Great Books for Kids and Teens for the books I liked (all of the above!).

I also started a new feature at my blog - Ten for Tuesday - and kicked it off last week with a list of my favorite 10 novels read in the recent past. My list sparked some fun discussion - what are your favorite novels?

What are YOU reading this week?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Memoir Review: Who Do You Think You Are?

Alyse Myers’ memoir, Who Do You Think You Are?, is in part a coming-of-age tale, but its main focus is on Myers’ relationship with her mother during her childhood and beyond. Although I couldn’t relate much to her difficult childhood, I was riveted by her well-written story. Her insights into mother-daughter relationships have some universal truths, whether you had an easy or difficult childhood.

The book opens with a prologue that begins like this:

I didn’t like my mother, and I certainly didn’t love her. The only time we ever had anything in common was when I had my own daughter – but by then it was too late, since my mother was to die before we really could compare notes.

I know she didn’t like me either. I can’t say whether she loved me, as I don’t remember her ever telling me so. But her dislike was more about not understanding the monster she created, as she would say, the person who wanted so much more than she expected – or was able – to give. Or wanted to give. To me. To my sisters. And to herself.

Myers grew up in the projects in Queens in the 1960’s with her two sisters. Her difficulties with her mother intensified after her father’s death, when her mother was left alone to raise the three girls. Some of the things her mother said and did were shocking to me (even that admission in the prologue that her mother never said she loved her), having grown up with a very loving, protective mother myself.

This book could easily have become a raging diatribe against her mother, but Myers’ tone is even- handed. She has spent her life trying to understand her mother, and she shares her journey and insights with the reader. She writes honestly but not in melodramatic way, recounting her childhood in detail but often only hinting at the worst of her mother’s abuses.

It would have been perfectly understandable if Myers had left home at eighteen and cut off all contact with her mother, but she didn’t take the easy way out. As an adult, Myers worked hard to build some sort of a healthy relationship with her mother, especially after her own daughter was born. She tried to understand who her parents were before they had kids, before they felt trapped by their lives, and what circumstances led to her mother’s bitterness and sense of futility.

Who Do You Think You Are? is an engaging story of a mother and daughter and the bonds and barriers between them. While some of its revelations are difficult to read, it is ultimately a moving depiction of a daughter who refuses to give up on her mother.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ten Favorite Novels


Today I'm starting a new feature on my book blog, Ten for Tuesday. On select Tuesdays, I'll feature my own personal top 10 list - a different topic each time. I'm kicking this off with my Top 10 Favorite Novels. This was a hard list to whittle down, so I stuck with books I've read in the last 4 years (since I started a book journal to keep track) and only grown-up novels - I'll cover my favorite kid and YA novels another time.

These are novels that stuck with me long after I closed them, where I came to care about the characters and lived in their world for awhile. So, here they are, in no particular order:

Is your top 10 list different than mine? Do you agree with some of my choices? Tell me which novels are your personal favorites!

Monday, May 11, 2009

It’s Monday, 5/11! What Are You Reading?

My book for this coming week is a hefty 500-page non-fiction book for my book group called The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Knowing that was coming up next, last week I stuck to some light kids’ and teens’ fiction:
  • I finished Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron (sequel to the award-winning The Higher Power of Lucky). Both books were warm, sweet reads for middle-grade readers, and I'm looking forward to the third and final Lucky book.
  • I also read Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley, a novel about Patty, a self-described “mixed-race, mixed-up teen.” The author was recommended by Miss Erin, a fellow book blogger, and I enjoyed the novel very much.
  • On audio, I'm listening to another middle-grade book, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg (author of the award-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). I'm almost finished with it, and it's been a complex but engaging story.
I’ll post reviews to all of these books at Great Books for Kids and Teens in the coming weeks. Time to go pick up The Nine at the library.

What are YOU reading this week?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Young Adult Fiction Review: Wake and Fade

These two books are intended for a young adult audience, but my husband and I both enjoyed them very much. Anyone who enjoys suspense or a touch of the supernatural should like this new series.

The first two books of a planned trilogy, Wake and Fade (Simon Pulse) by Lisa McMann are two of my favorite teen books from the past year. I lent the books to a 17-year old friend of mine who agreed that these two quick reads were exciting and suspenseful.

The main character, seventeen-year old Janie Hannagan, has an unusual problem: she gets pulled into other people’s dreams. Her knowledge of her classmates’ worst fears and weirdest fantasies, plus her inability to control this strange gift, has forced her to remain a loner. Wake opens with one of these bizarre episodes:

Janie Hannagan’s math book slips from her fingers. She grips the edge of the table in the school library. Everything goes black and silent. She sighs and rests her head on the table. Tries to pull herself out of it, but fails miserably. She’s too tired today. Too hungry. She really doesn’t have time for this.

And then.

She’s sitting in the bleachers in the football stadium, blinking under the lights, silent among the roars of the crowd.

She glances at the people sitting in the bleachers around her – fellow classmates, parents – trying to spot the dreamer. She can tell this dreamer is afraid, but where is he? Then she looks to the football field. Finds him. Rolls her eyes.

It’s Luke Drake. No question about it. He is, after all, the only naked player on the field for the homecoming game.

Nobody seems to notice or care. Except him. The ball is snapped and the lines collide, but Luke is covering himself with his hands, hopping from one foot to the other. She can feel his panic increasing. Janie’s fingers tingle and go numb.

Luke looks over at Janie, eyes pleading, as the football moves toward him, a bullet in slow motion. “Help,” he says….

Janie lives a solitary life, never knowing when she’ll be pulled into someone else’s dream and temporarily paralyzed. She learns how to get by and what kinds of situations to avoid (like study hall after lunch), but then she gets pulled into a recurring nightmare where she is not just watching but is a participant. Janie tries to make sense of the frightening dream and figure out what to do about it.

Meanwhile, Janie finally finds a friend who she can trust and confide in. She also learns that she can control certain aspects of her strange ability, though it’s a long and difficult process, as she struggles to gain critical information from the nightmare and help its dreamer.

In Fade, Janie uses her unique talent to help the police find a sexual predator at her high school. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because it would give away too much of the first book. Both books are filled with fast-paced suspense, mystery, a little romance, and no small amount of creepiness. I really enjoyed them, as did my husband and our 17-year old friend, and I’m looking forward to the third book, Gone.

Wake 210 pages
Fade 247 pages
Simon Pulse (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Best for ages 15 and up, due to sexual content and some violence

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Memoir Review: I Sleep At Red Lights

I have read good reviews of I Sleep At Red Lights (St. Martin’s Press), a memoir by Bruce Stockler, in various places over the past several years, and it was on my very lengthy Want To Read list. I was finally inspired to get it out of the library after reading a recent review at another book blog that I enjoy. It was worth the wait.

The book’s subtitle is A True Story of Life After Triplets. Bruce and his wife Roni were leading a busy life in the New York City area with their three-year old son, Asher, when they found out that Roni was pregnant with triplets. The memoir takes us along on their journey from stunned disbelief through the pregnancy and the sleepless nights with three infants to the chaotic life they now lead with four young children. Through it all, Bruce’s writing is honest and warm and often laugh-out-loud funny (he worked as a comedy writer for Jay Leno at one point).

Here is a scene that I felt compelled to read aloud to my husband. Bruce is in the supermarket with the three now-toddlers in a wagon and Asher walking alongside:

I am examining a frozen turkey when I hear laughing.

Barak has stuck his hand into the organic chicken display and is tearing at the packages. I grab his hand and immobilize it, checking the chicken packs for damage. One plastic cover is ripped open, and the top packages are slick with chicken juice.

If over-fondled fruit presents a health problem, raw chicken juice might as well be Ebola virus floating up from freshly killed monkeys. “Don’t move your hand!” I say to Barak. I look around for a Food Emporium employee, a mom, a priest – anyone who might provide a wipe or paper towel.

What is the worst possible thing my son could do?

Barak tries to lick his chicken-juiced hand.

“Stop it!” I say. When I speak harshly or with impatience, Barak is the first to burst into tears, so I cringe for his reaction. Instead of crying, Barak cackles back at me. “Lickies, lickies!” he says, waggling his tongue. Barak laughs hysterically and gives me a grin of demonic pleasure, then proceeds to struggle his tongue toward his hand.

The supermarket scene continues for a whole chapter, with many more adventures before they finally exit the store. With triplets plus one, even the smallest outings turn into circus-like escapades.

In addition to relating stories of the triplets, Bruce also writes honestly about his marriage and the stresses of managing a suddenly large family. Roni works 100-hour weeks for a law firm in NY, so Bruce is the kids’ main caregiver. The conflicts they experience are of the type that any married couple with kids can relate to, though often magnified by the sheer size of their family.

While Bruce’s stories of their frenzied life with triplets are often very funny, he also writes with great affection about how much he loves his kids and what it means to be a parent:

But my time with the kids is pure playtime, an alternate universe from the worry-poisoned planet of adulthood. And this moment, with three kids goofily terrorizing me and another one smiling from the on-deck circle – approving the attack in progress by his troops – is better than I ever dreamed when I was in my twenties and searching for the meaning of life, which turned out to be a trick question.

Although I didn’t always agree with every detail of Bruce’s approach to parenting, I completely understood his love and affection for his family and his struggles with balancing his life. Any parent will enjoy and relate to Bruce’s memoir.

Monday, May 04, 2009

It's Monday, 5/4! What Are You Reading?

I missed posting last week because I was sick, but I had plenty of reading time while recovering! So, in the last two weeks, I've read:
  • The Gate of Days by Guillaume Prevost, a middle-grade/teen time-travel adventure (I love time travel stories!). My son and I both enjoyed the first book in the series (The Book of Time), and this second one, but it ended in a cliff-hanger, so now we have to wait for book 3!
  • Who Do You Think You Are?, a memoir by Alyse Myers about a rocky, complicated relationship with her mother. Although Myers' experiences growing up were very different than mine, I enjoyed her book and its in-depth exploration of the mother-daughter relationship.
  • The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, a warm, captivating novel about a 10-year old girl named Lucky who lives in a town of 43 people in the California desert. It's easy to see why Patron's novel won the Newbery Award, and I'm currently enjoying the sequel novel, Lucky Breaks.
So, there will be lots of reviews of great books posted soon, both here and at my kids' book blog.

So, what are you reading this week?