Archive for May, 2012

The Book of Madness and Cures

Friday, May 25th, 2012

By Regina O’Melveny

The Short Take:

Written by an accomplished poet, this novel traces the odyssey of a Renaissance woman in search of her long-missing father. Beautifully written, it is more an exploration of self than a journey of adventure. It’s probably not for everyone, but I found this novel to be a beautiful read.

Why?

Quite simply, this book is poetry in prose form. The language is exceptional in its ability to evoke much more than mere images. You can feel the cold and smell the sea. Though it traces a remarkable journey across Europe, the book’s heart lies more in the conversations between characters and the contents of cherished letters.

The central character, Gabriella, is ostensibly looking for her long-absent father. However, she is just as much trying to find her own way and her own place. O’Melveny has captured the challenges of being an educated, tenacious woman at a time when Europe was transforming from a place of superstition to new beginnings in scientific knowledge.

Conversations and inner musings count far more than action. Indeed, the few action sequences in the book do more to provoke new self-discovery than anything else.

O’Melveny has created a very thoughtful and elegant novel that is true to its setting. Better yet, it is peopled by characters who feel true to the times instead of mouthing ideas that reflect more modern sensibilities. Yet it is still a timeless story of one woman’s search for identity and self-fulfillment that still resonates.

A Little Plot:

A self-proclaimed doctor when women could be no such thing, Gabriella receives a letter from her ten-years-absent father saying he will not return and it is better for them all that he does not. At odds with her mother and frustrated by her lack of acceptance by the Venetian medical community, Gabriella decides to  find the father she adores using only her cache of his infrequent letters as a guide.

Traveling with two servants, she collects information about diseases and cures along her journey, which she hopes to add to the Book of Diseases her father was researching. As she progresses, she also accumulates disturbing hints about her father’s emotional state and comes to new realizations about her family and herself.

If you would like to know more about the author and her book, visit her website by clicking here.

The Fear Index

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

By Robert Harris

The Short Take:

This taut psychological thriller centers on hedge fund algorithms of all things. When I first heard about this book, I thought that sounded boring. It was anything but.

Why?

The world of high finance baffles me. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of betting a stock will go down instead of up as an investment. Harris actually made this clearer, yet didn’t let math or explanations of investment strategies bog down his plot in the least.

While the story mostly stays focused on Alex Hoffman, a brilliant and eccentric physicist, other characters bring welcome depth and add interesting nuances. The artist-wife and aging detective are particularly interesting. With all the action taking place in a single day, there are no slow spots as Hoffman’s world spirals out of control.

But know this: While this book is in no way a science fiction book, sci-fi fans will probably guess what’s up early on. I did. But that did not diminish my enjoyment of this book one iota. Writing with a secure basis in the real world, Harris has created a real page turner that will also have you thinking about the repercussions of today’s interconnectivity, information flow, privacy, and quite a bit more.

A Little Plot:

Hoffman receives a rare Darwin first edition book anonymously. Next an intruder some how completely bypasses his extensive home security systems and attempts to kill him, knocking Hoffman unconscious. Dazed by his brain injury and confused by these strange events, Hoffman seeks answers on his own, while Detective LeClerc pursues another line of investigation, suspecting the problems might have their source in Hoffman’s mind.

The fear index continues to grow — not just for Hoffman himself, but also for his highly successful hedge fund, where the algorithm he created is taking ever riskier stock positions. By the time he realizes what is going on, others have drawn their own — quite different — conclusions.

While I didn’t readily find a web sit for Harris, you can find out more about him and his books by clicking here.

Unbroken

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

By Laura Hillenbrand

The Short Take:

This is the true story of  Olympic runner and WWII POW Louis Zamperini. It includes triumphs along with unbelievable brutality. This man’s story is incredible. Even better, I found that though this book is built around one exceptional man, it gave me a better feel for the war in the Pacific than sum total of all I’ve encountered before.

Why?

It is hard to imagine a more incredible life than that of Louis Zamperini — and he’s not done living even yet (yes, that is a spoiler, but did you honestly expect a different ending with this book’s title?). The man has accomplished things that most people only dream of. Beyond that, he has suffered in ways that are beyond comprehension for all but a few.

However, Unbroken also presents a clear and nuanced picture of the war in the Pacific. You realize how little warfare then resembles modern times: Information is vague, limited and slow; directions are haphazard — sometimes based on maps 100 years old. This book also gave me a much better understanding of why we dropped the atomic bomb. I’d always been told the reason, but Hillenbrand brought it home in a visceral way.

Unbroken is not for the faint of heart. However, for me, the courage and resourcefulness of Zamperini and those whose lot he shared far outweighed the suffering and brutal treatment. Hillenbrand laid out the facts unblinkingly, but not in a way to shock — only to inform.

The only possible quibble I had with this truly outstanding book was that sometimes her in=depth information about running statistics or a plane design could bog things down every once in a while. But we know how to handle that, right? Scan.

A Little Plot:

Louis Zamperini was a scoundrel as a kid and teen, constantly in trouble. Pushed by his brother, he got into running, setting records and achieving international attention.

He is training for the Olympics when Pearl Harbor is attacked. Like thousands of others, he enlists in the Army Air Forces. Trained as a bombardier, he is sent to the Pacific. He sees action, but it’s when he is sent out on a rescue mission that his own plane crashes into the ocean. Only Zamperini and two others survive, floating in the vast Pacific Ocean for weeks on end.

When they finally are spotted, it is by the Japanese. That is when things go from terribly bad to immeasurably worse.

For more about this book and it’s author, click here. Do read this one. Even if, like me, you would jsut as soon avoid books about war, this amazing book should be the exception.

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