Thursday, June 28, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Books 24, 25 & 26

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen

In honor of summer, I’ve taken a break from my usual literary diet of nonfiction and have begun delving into some of the novels my daughter recommended. It’s been a great diversion, and I am rediscovering the joy of diving into someone else’s life and immersing myself in it.

Stones from the River takes place in Germany, spanning the years that include the rise and fall of the Nazis. The main character is a young woman who is a dwarf, and focuses on her personal struggles to fit in against a larger backdrop of an entire society that no longer “fits in” to Hitler’s worldview. Thoroughly captivating, often heartbreaking, this was one that I hated to finish.

Ellen Foster is a short book, written from the perspective of a simple girl in the rural South who has grown up in an extremely dysfunctional family and has seen way too much. But the real hero is the foster family from whom she appropriates her surname.

Black and Blue is a book it turns out I’ve read before, but it was worth rereading. I always enjoy Anna Quindlen’s novels, and her descriptions of the heroine’s day-to-day life made my palms sweat, knowing that danger lurked right around the corner. To say I was disappointed with the ending is an understatement, but then abuse seldom has a happy ending.

I’m looking forward to some more beach reads this summer!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Book 23 - Dirty Secret

Dirty Secret by Jessie Sholl

Bugs. That is what I will forever remember about this book, which I picked up because of my interest in (OK, obsession with) Hoarders.

At first it was a comfortably familiar scenario: girl leaves exciting job and sympathetic partner in NYC to help sick, hoarding mother in Midwestern city. There was the usual back-and-forth, past-and-present description, providing insight on how the problem began, how it progressed, what the situation was like now, and the impact it had on the author. Mom’s house was a wreck – an assorted mess of unopened bags from the thrift store, clothes and knick-knacks piled everywhere but on the shelves where they belonged, used food containers, non-working appliances. Nothing I hadn’t seen on my TV screen week after week.

Then, as my kids would say, “shit got real.”

After one extended visit with Mom, the author’s feet started itching. Tracing the source of the problem to a used pillow the hoarder “couldn’t resist” purchasing at the thrift shop, at first she thought the problem was body lice. Bad enough. But the usual poisons, potions and lotions didn’t work, and soon she (and the still-sympathetic, long-suffering partner) were infested with what doctors thought might be mites, causing scabies.

Natural cures, insecticides, creams, gels, lotions … it was hard to concentrate on some of the psychodrama taking place in this book because I kept scratching and wondering why modern medicine didn’t have a cure for the parasites that caused scabies. And how she was able to bring all her bottles and tubes of liquids on the airplane with her to Italy. My mind kept going to the TSA list, and I’d flip back to the publication date just to see if perhaps the rules had been different when the story was written. Then,  just when I (and the author) thought the rash was gone and the bugs were dead, another visit to Mom brought about a relapse. Itch, scratch, itch.

I might have been better able to concentrate on the psychological aspects of this book if it weren’t for the “skeeve” factor. But alas, it is what it is. And as much as I enjoyed the read, I was happy I could stop scratching once I reached the end.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Books 21 & 22 - Liar's Poker and The Big Short

Liar’s Poker and The Big Short by Michael Lewis

If you want to restore your faith in America’s financial future, feel good about the people in power at the country’s biggest investment banks, and face today’s fiscal nightmare with the confidence that the system is inherently good and will surely repair itself, I suggest you avoid these two books like the plague.

Liar’s Poker gives an insider’s account of the no-rules chicanery that took place on the trading floor of Salomon Brothers and other major players in the ‘80s, which eventually led to the stock market crash of 1987. Then, just when you think the power brokers have surely learned their lesson and mended their ways, here comes The Big Short, describing how these same frat boys rose up from the flames like so many phoenixes and proceeded to concoct an even more mind-boggling get-rich scheme. The result of that one: the stock market crash of 2008. The one we’re still reeling from.

They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But the postscript for these guys is that they managed to get wealthier regardless. And not just a little wealthier. Incredibly, inconceivably wealthier.

Michael Lewis is a great storyteller, and even though I didn’t understand a lot of the financial goings-on that he described (and frighteningly, neither did an awful lot of CEOs), both books were thoroughly readable and – dare I say – enjoyable. 

The takeaway: Grandpa was right. Under the mattress is a safe place for money.