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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel (Vintage International)
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel (Vintage International)
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.42
132 used & new from $2.92

4.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book from a very creative mind, July 10, 2016
Haruki Murakami's creative talents shine brightly in "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World". This is a really innovative book that doesn't sacrifice structure and a clean, chronological story line while being completely unique as a novel. As I read the plot -- which alternates between the two very different "worlds" that the protagonist inhabits -- I kept thinking of different interpretations of these worlds. Youth vs. old age. Courage vs. cowardice. Freedom vs. confinement. There are a lot of different meanings within the two contrasting worlds. I'm sure every reader will have his or her own take on Murakami's twin metaphors.

For me, a real highlight of the book is the character development. It's a pleasant and easy process getting to know the narrator, understanding his motives, and liking him as a person. At the same time, he's surrounded by a dazzling hodge-podge of eccentric co-stars: women who want to sleep with him, thugs, a mad scientist, a power plant's lonely caretaker, and a Colonel, to name but a few.

Parts of the story are really out there. When the narrator and the mad scientist's lascivious granddaughter descend into subterranean Tokyo, a very odd world awaits them. It's a little hard to understand, and even harder to describe.

Published in 1985, "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" is a classic among Murakami's many novels. It also happens to be the author's personal favorite. Although the book defies categorization into any specific genre, the difficulty in pinning it down is unlikely to hold people back from enjoying the imaginative story-telling.


The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.19
811 used & new from $2.74

5.0 out of 5 stars An incomparable story about war, June 27, 2016
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" should be required reading for anyone who wants a perspective of a soldier's life during the Vietnam War. Written as a fictional narrative, the book reads like an autobiography -- well researched, deeply personal, and with the protagonist sharing the same name as the author. It may be a bit unconventional, but the pieces fit together exceptionally well.

Story-telling can be cathartic. And I've never read a book in which this phenomenon is so apparent. The unspeakable events that happen in a war have to be shared in order for those who were directly involved to heal, and to communicate the pain -- from the mundane to the extreme -- to those who weren't affected.

To be sure, some of the book is very tough reading, particularly the descriptions of death on the front lines. Other sections take place thousands of miles from Vietnam, but are equally poignant and memorable. The flashback to Tim O'Brien's childhood crush will stick with you for a long time. The parallel it draws to the unfathomable loss of life a decade and a half into the future is a powerful part of this award-winning book, and one that underscores the author's incomparable ability to tell a story.


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage International)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage International)
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.78
171 used & new from $2.50

3.0 out of 5 stars A runner's motivation, June 6, 2016
Haruki Murakami's memoir on running and writing is a thoughtful collection of reminiscences about the two activities that the author has dedicated his life to. The book covers about 1-1/2 years of Murakami's life, from mid-2005 to late-2006, with flashbacks to earlier years when he was a bar owner and aspiring writer in Tokyo. The narrative moves smoothly from chapter to chapter, covering various aspects of the author's training regimen, races, and recovery. His companion through all of the long-distance running is philosophy -- the philosophy of achievement, aging, and contentment, among others.

"What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" is a very well written and easy-to-read book. I think that's a testament to the skills of both the author and the translator. Murakami is honest that he's late in his career, certainly as a runner if not also a writer. His running times and stamina declined throughout his 50s, and like any professional author he harbors fears that his writing skills will also fade away in the years ahead.

Murakami is highly successful in both his writing and his long-distance running. His books have sold millions of copies, with translations into more than 50 languages. He has completed more than 30 marathons, adhering to a "one per year" regimen. That said, he still harbors a lot of self-doubt, criticizing himself for the debts that he thinks outweigh his assets, and his personal shortcomings both on and off the running trail. Some of this comes across as false humility, in that it flies in the face of the many accomplishments that he also describes in the book. Or the self-criticism could be the motivation that has helped Mr. Murakami remain so productive for so many years. Either way, to fans of Murakami's fiction, this memoir on running will be an enjoyable companion, and an interesting glimpse into the philosophy of the author.


Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (American Lives)
Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (American Lives)
by Fan Shen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.88
83 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Red soldier, May 23, 2016
"Gang of One" is an engaging first-person account of life in China during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution. Fan Shen was a student in Beijing in 1966 when Mao Zedong initiated the ill-fated program to remove counter-revolutionary elements of Chinese society. Initially swept up with enthusiasm, the author quickly became disillusioned with the movement, recognizing the damage that the revolution was causing.

The book covers about 20 years of the author's life, in a chronological and easy-to-follow narrative. The stories and anecdotes are colorful, to put it mildly. With a strong work ethic, infinite patience, and incredible perseverance, Fan Shen overcame a series of obstacles and restrictions before we could finally emigrate to the US in the mid-1980s.

Like any well written autobiography, "Gang of One" is told with humility and humor. Shen shares many highs and lows in his journey through a tumultuous life under China's Communist regime. And he's not afraid to embellish in his story-telling -- coincidental encounters that span years and miles provide a thread of continuity to characters throughout the book.

Finding patterns and perspective in history is made easier when there are many voices to tell the story. Fan Shen's contribution is the account of one man's journey through dark but important years in the 20th century. Our understanding of how events unfolded during these years, and how ordinary citizens learned to cope, is strengthened thanks to Fan Shen's autobiographical work.


The Orchardist: A Novel
The Orchardist: A Novel
by Amanda Coplin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.47
330 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars The kindness of the orchardist, March 6, 2016
The Orchardist is a well written novel, a labor of love which took its author eight years to write. The story is set in Washington state at the turn of the 20th century. It tells the story of William Talmadge, a bachelor who leads a quiet life tending to his apple orchard. Two runaway girls take up furtive residence with Talmadge, who eventually takes them under his wing. The girls' troubled past is quickly exposed, leading to tragedy, and a lifelong search for revenge.

At times, The Orchardist is mesmerizing and very hard to put down. The reader learns of the characters' backgrounds early in the book -- Talmadge, Clee, and Caroline Middey -- which makes it easy to understand their motives and their dependencies on each other. The scenery and period setting are also nicely described. It's easy to get swept into the bucolic but challenging lives that the characters lived.

My main issue with the book is the slow pace of the story throughout the middle sections. The action unfolds in fits and starts, trying to build a bit of momentum but often getting bogged down in repetitive details. This could be a reflection of the many years of writing and rewriting that went into the novel. The prose is nicely crafted and enjoyable to read, but the pace of the story paid the price of so many years of meticulous work.

This is one of those books that's a treat to find. It's the author's first novel, so you don't know what to expect when you crack open the cover. If you're looking for a fast-paced read, this one probably isn't for you. But if you appreciate good writing, strong character development, and a vivid description of life at the turn of the century, then you won't be disappointed with this book.


Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
by Robert Michael Gates
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.68
110 used & new from $4.48

5.0 out of 5 stars A balanced and insightful perspective, December 28, 2015
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Robert Gates' 2014 memoir covering his four-and-a-half years serving as Secretary of Defense provides a balanced and insightful perspective on the enormous challenges that he faced as a cabinet member under both the Bush and Obama administrations. With a clear and organized voice, Gates shares very personal accounts of dealing with two wars, two presidents, inter-agency squabbles, a highly partisan Congress, and, above all, the military and civilian personnel who served under him during his years at the Pentagon.

The book begins with Gates's interview with Bush "43" in late 2006. Gates describes the strong sense of duty that compelled him to accept the nomination to replace Donald Rumsfeld in the late years of Bush's second term. In great detail, Gates describes the high points and the low points of the ensuring years, as his initial short-term assignment stretched into 4-1/2 years of service.

To me, the book served dual purposes. First, it provides insight into the day-to-day challenges of a senior cabinet member -- one who happens to be running a 3-million-person bureaucracy with a $700 billion annual budget. Second, it reviews the key events of the 2006-2011 period in American foreign policy, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab spring, the successful raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Pakistan, relationships with Russia and China, and so much more. His perspectives on the behind-the-scenes dialogue and negotiations shed a lot of light on how Bush and Obama approached and responded to the many challenges and quagmires of the early 21st century.

It's tempting to dissect Gates's experience along partisan lines -- which president did a better job of leading the United States, were more in touch with the needs and interests of the American people, had the strongest vision and insight in foreign policy? The author is certainly not shy about sharing his opinions and experiences about those issues. At the same time, he comes across as very honest and balanced in his points of view, heaping ample amounts of praise and criticism on both administrations for which he served.


The March: A Novel
The March: A Novel
by E. L. Doctorow
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.52
284 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A march through the south, October 30, 2015
This review is from: The March: A Novel (Paperback)
E.L. Doctorow novels may rub some folks the wrong way because the books tend to take liberties with their interpretation of history. "The March" likely falls into that same camp. The book provides a fictional perspective of General Sherman's famous march through the South at the end of the US Civil War. The story is told through various characters -- Northerner and Southerner, rich and poor, black and white.

Other works of historical fiction that I've read have tended to lean more heavily on the history, and rely less on the fiction. But that's not a knock on the book, at least not in my opinion. I enjoyed reading about the day-to-day life on the march. I particularly enjoyed Arly and Will, the comedic Rebs whose hearts lie in the South, but whose sense of self-preservation keeps them open-minded about their loyalties. The characterization of Wrede Sartorius is also interesting -- a talented surgeon whose quiet dedication leads him to a fatal rendezvous with President Lincoln.

I've only read one other book by Doctorow -- "Homer & Langley" -- and I thought "The March" was right up there in quality, if not a notch above it. The lack of quotation marks was a little annoying, but it's easy enough to get accustomed to that approach. To be sure, Doctorow's novels have gotten mixed reviews from the professionals over the years. But my experience thus far only makes me want to read more of what he's written.


Homage to Catalonia
Homage to Catalonia
Offered by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars From the front lines, August 17, 2015
Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" is not as well known as his iconic "1984" and "Animal Farm", but it's right up there in terms of communicating his raw opinions and points of view surrounding current political events. In this autobiographical work, Orwell describes the period from 1936 to 1937, when he lived in Spain and served on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. He originally traveled to the war zone as a journalist, but got swept up in the war movement, eventually fighting with a splinter group of the Republicans against the pro-Franco Nationalists.

The book comes across as a no-nonsense first-person account of Orwell's months fighting with the POUM (Workers Party of Marxism Unification) and the hardships that he endured during his service. The book alternates between a description of life at the front -- at some times mundane and at other times highly dangerous -- and an overview of the complicated political situation at that time.

The tough part about "Homage to Catalonia" is trying to sort out all of the Spanish acronyms that Orwell tosses around, while wrapping your head around the nuanced and fluid political environment of some 80 years ago. The parties, factions and splinter groups are numerous, and it was difficult for me to digest everything and understand how it all fit together. The historical context was probably easier to understand for Orwell's contemporary readers, when the political situation was topical and newsworthy. An appendix at the end of this book would be a very nice supplement in future editions.

One of the pleasures of reading "Homage to Catalonia" is knowing that it was written by one of the giants of 20th century literature at an early stage of his career. The style and substance of Orwell's later masterpieces are evident in this lesser known autobiographical account. And the first-hand historical perspective provides a sound introduction to the background and the events of the Spanish Civil War.


"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide
"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide
by Samantha Power
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.48
128 used & new from $5.22

4.0 out of 5 stars A dark century, July 21, 2015
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In "A Problem from Hell" Samantha Power presents an engaging analysis of selected genocides from the 20th century, and America's complicit role in enabling these acts to occur. Each of the chapters goes into some depth, covering the Turkish genocide against Armenians, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the Iraqi genocide against the Kurds, the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the Serb genocide against the Muslims. Power also dedicates considerable attention to Raphael Lemkim, the Polish-American lawyer who coined the term "genocide" and who championed the passage of the United Nations Convention against Genocide in 1948.

The book is a dark lesson on humanity's capacity for evil. It's also a sobering critique of how people and their political leaders repeatedly fail to respond -- either proactively or even reactively -- to the crimes being committed.

"A Problem from Hell" is a hefty 516 pages in length (excluding endnotes, etc.), and it took me several cross-country flights to complete. The obvious strengths of the book are its highly readable accounts of the selected genocides that Power decided to cover, and a strong concluding chapter that endeavors to tie together the common themes and lessons of the preceding chapters.

But I was somewhat disappointed that Ms. Power didn't spend more time exploring the psychological factors that cause people to rationalize that doing nothing is the right thing to do. Power's approach is entirely political -- and almost exclusively focused on the United States. It's a fair angle from which to analyze the chosen genocides, but it begs the question of whether deeper issues that transcend borders may also contribute meaningfully to the complicity. Shedding light on genocides that occurred prior to the US ascent to global power in the 20th century may have been a constructive addition to the analysis.

This book was required reading for a class on US Foreign Policy that I took last spring. It's a great book for such a class -- and it should also be required reading for anyone interested in an exploration of the background and causes of contemporary genocides.


The Circle
The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.49
236 used & new from $3.33

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sharing is caring, June 12, 2015
This review is from: The Circle (Paperback)
The Circle takes on the important topic of privacy in an increasingly "transparent" world. I had really high hopes for this book, which may have contributed to my general disappointment in its story-telling and characters. At the very least, the book adds a lot of value by addressing the dark side of social media and online technologies. The trajectory that we may be on -- leading to 24/7 surveillance of everybody everywhere -- is scary to think about, and Eggers deserves credit for applying his considerable writing talents to explore this topic.

My main quibble with the book is that the characters, with the exception of a few lonely souls, show virtually no hesitation or disdain for the egregious sacrifices that they make. When asked to strap cameras to their bodies, or to share all trivial details of their lives online, they jump in with both feet. I think I would have been more engaged if Mae and her happy band of friends and colleagues had raised an eyebrow now and then before selling out. Sure, it's a dystopian view of the future and all, but a quick scan of Reddit shows that even the hippiest of today's uber cool tech-soaked hipsters has a knack for challenging authority and questioning the benefits of technology -- at least every once in a token while.

To be sure, it's a weighty topic, and casting characters that come across as somewhat realistic may have required more pages and more time than the editors were willing to invest. Instead, everything moves along unchallenged and unquestioned from 99% of the inside Circle, which makes for a quick and enjoyable enough read. But it could have been much more provocative with more thoughtful characters who are part of the story.


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