Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Brain on fire

by Susannah Cahalan

Cahalan writes an autobiographical account of her experience with an auto-immune disease that nearly caused her to spend a lifetime under constant psychiatric supervision.  At times the story is a eerie look into the vastly unknown world of neuroscience.  Cahalan recounts her weeks of catatonia and psychosis through family diaries and hospital videos.  Much of that time is completely lost to her own memory.  The discovery of her disease, and subsequent writings by her doctors and herself have allowed many more people to be diagnosed than ever before.  She admits that, most likely, she would not have gotten this diagnosis of salvation had the disease struck her just a few years earlier.

Cahalan was lucky to have a background in journalism before she was struck by her illness.  This allowed her a foothold into the dedication needed to research her own lost days.  Provocatively written, this saga will capture your heart as you champion Susannah towards health.  

The audio version is hauntingly read by Heather Henderson.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky

While it's not an "expose" on hotels, this book IS a great peek at what happens in the "back of the house" where paying guests can't see. Tomsky has worked in numerous hotels, both higher-end and not. He's been a valet, desk staff, and housekeeping management, both union and not. The point is, he's been around, and in this book while he's telling his tales you'll learn a lot about what to do (and more importantly, NOT do) the next time you're an overnight visitor.

Honestly, tipping is the biggest theme in this book: who to tip, how much, how to do it, what it means, and what it can bring. While you'll also learn a bit about cleanliness, amenities, and bringing your own pillow (don't do it), the heart of the hustle is the crinkly handshake. And what it boils down to is courtesy - how you treat hotel employees affects how they treat you. While that seems like it should be common sense, anyone who's worked in customer service understands it's more truly a rare thing.

The book's funny, and light reading. It's a well-written memoir and a topic that I hadn't seen covered much in the past. I'll highly recommend it.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore

You'll never look at Toulouse-Lautrec's art the same way again ... comedy genius Christopher Moore has orchestrated a perfect blend of history and fiction in this tale of the Parisian art scene during the late 1800s.

It all boils down to the color blue: it's the most expensive and rare of materials used in the art world (that's why it was reserved for the Virgin Mary). But apparently someone is targeting artists, and the weapon may be in the paint.

Painter/baker Lucien Lessard (fictional) and his friend, artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (real) play detective in an attempt to reveal the art-world conspiracy .. between cognacs and making the bread, of course. All the big players of the day make character appearances here: Renoir, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Pisarro, Van Gogh.

It's a funny book, but also thoughfully designed to consider the questions of an artist's inspiration, mental illness, debauchery, and creativity.

A note on formats: the first edition of this book was printed with navy blue text and includes full-color pictures of many of the paintings mentioned in the book. The print book also includes a postscript by the author explaining truth vs. fantasy and where he got his inspiration. You'll miss those things if you listen to the audiobook - but the narration by Euan Morton is phenomenal and brings lots of emphasis and nuance to things I may have missed in the reading.

(Yes - I both listened to and read this book. I'm a geek, I know.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

The highest praise I can offer a book is that it surprised me - that it took me some place I hadn't expected and shocked me along the way. That said, "Aristotle & Dante" is an EXCELLENT book that I highly recommend! Several times I gasped out loud when the turn of events took me by surprise. And I swear I won't give it away for you ...

At the heart, this is a story about two boys becoming young men. Neither has a lot of friends, and when they meet at the pool one summer day, they bond quickly. The boys have a lot in common: awkward unusual names, Mexican-American heritage, super-protective mothers, plus they share a kind of thoughtfulness unusual in 15-year-old boys. But they're also very different: Ari's withdrawn, while Dante's more outgoing; Dante talks while Ari's often silent, and they attend rival schools.

Their friendship brings both out of their shells. Together they work thought the typical-teen thoughts and feelings they may not have shared with anyone else: what am I supposed to be? where is my place in the world? how do I fit in? and how do I get girls to notice me? But the friendship's not easy, either, and often the boys have a hard time accepting the other's differences.

Have I mentioned that I loved this book? The characters are realistic, and I loved the contrast between the two families - one very touchy-feely, the other quiet and reserved. And while the book is set in the late-1980's, it's also very current. Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Ghost knight

by Cornelia Funke

I spent much of the book hoping the main character would get over himself and at least try to like his soon-to-be stepfather.  Beyond that, the novel is a delight.  Jon Whitcroft is shuttled off to boarding school because of the aforementioned attitude problem.  While there, he discovers ancient ghosts intent on killing any male in his family line.  He then makes two extraordinary new friendships.  One is with yet another ghost.  Possibly more unbelievable to Jon, the other is with one of the prettiest girls in school. 

Jon, Ella, and the ghost of an ancient knight must work together, but trust is something to earn in new friendships.  As expected when kids are main characters, the adults are often portrayed as bumbling, and out of touch.  The two living adults involved in solving the mystery, and keeping Jon alive, are more well rounded, but I was left wondering how one received his facial scar.  Perhaps Ms. Funke has more to tell us.

 The audio version of this novel was recently crowned an Odyssey Award Honor title.  According to the American Library Association's website, "This annual award is given to the producer of the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States."  What really made me want to read this book was the pronunciation of Ms. Funke's last name by YALSA president, Jack Martin, during the awards ceremony.  You can here it here: http://cdnlive.webcastinc.com/ala/2013/live/  in minute 29. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

Neil Bassett is a thirty-something emotional trainwreck: He's a little obsessed with his ex-wife, he's going to strange extremes to hook up with women, and he's been hired to help build an "intelligent" computer ... based on his dead father.

The gist of the story is Neil learning to act like a grown-up and navigate his own emotions and relationships, while at the same time he's helping the computer HAVE emotions and relationships. Since the program is a virtual version of his own father, Neil's got a strange beyond-the-grave opportunity to hammer out his relationship and past mis-steps with his cold, distant father.

There's a point in the book where the computer, Dr. Bassett, begins to explore the missing parts of his "memory" and ask questions. I had an "OH! This won't be good," moment - you really start to think of the computer as a person and worry about its future. The characters do too - Dr. Bassett becomes a sounding board and adviser to nearly every character; the IM small talk and chit-chat they're all having with the computer (to give it form and correct dialog mis-cues) becomes extremely confessional, even though his advice tends toward the kind found in fortune cookies.

I liked this book; I became very emotionally involved with the computer Dr. Bassett, and couldn't wait to see what happened next. While it's not overly technical, I did tend to skim parts where they discussed the artificial intelligence technology and philosophy. And I really wanted to see if Neil could come out of this a better person, or if it would break him permanently.