Friday, May 20, 2011

THE FEAR by Peter Godwin ✰✰✰✰✰

Short Version:
“This is a book by a brave man about people who are braver still. Peter Godwin brings us closer to the filth of the Mugabe tyranny than is bearable and portrays with subtlety, authority, and respect those who, against all odds and at the cost of unimaginable suffering, continue the resistance against it. Their courage is the stuff of myth, and in Godwin they have found their chronicler.” -David Rieff
Long Version:

Some books are tough to read.  Some we need to read.  Peter Godwin’s newest, The Fear, is one of those books.  By far one of the most haunting books I have ever read, this work chronicles the fate of Zimbabwe’s opposition after their victory, in a democratic election, to oust dictator Robert Mugabe after his thirty years of despotic rule.  For their bravery in standing up and saying, “No more!”, followers of the MDC party faced torture, terror, intimidation, and death.
Right about the time that I felt as if this would be a book that I could not finish Peter returned to his wife and two young sons in New York, and he was feeling much the same way.  While playing dinos with his boy he envisioned a chart hanging on the end of a young torture victim’s bed, upon which the nurses had put a fierce-some T-rex sticker-a symbol of the boy’s spirit.  The dichotomy of his sons’ lives and those of the children in the land of his birth overwhelmed him.
In every act, every conversation, he flashed back to his homeland, and in doing so, he realized that he didn’t write this book for himself-he wrote it for the thousands of victims of thirty years of Mugabe rule in his beloved Zimbabwe.  This was a story he was called to tell, for the simple reason that he could.  He must bear witness to The Fear, bring the truth of it to the attention of the outside world, and bring hope to those actively engaged in their country’s fight for freedom from tyranny.
Knowing that Peter Godwin is a print journalist, I fully expected excellent reporting, and he definitely delivered.  The book is well organized and any digressions from chronology are clear and well transitioned.  Despite dealing with a huge cast of players, he gave enough information to remind the reader where they had met a person previously, and no person ever felt extraneous.  Some levity is injected into an otherwise dark narrative in the form of an almost gallowsish humor.  What I did not expect was the formidable strength of his ability to paint Zimbabwe in my mind-her stunning natural beauty, economic free-fall, collapsed civil structure, and complex society were vibrant within his prose.
Above all else, this book is about the triumph of humanity in the most wretched of circumstances.  It is the story of people who stand, in the face of a reality so horrific that most of us can not even apprehend it, and refuse to be silenced, even unto death.  Please read their story.  Let Peter’s decision to write this difficult tale gain traction in your ability to share your reading experience with others you know.  The fight in Zimbabwe is ongoing.  If democracy is to prevail-and the suffering of thousands of torture victims be vindicated-the world must listen and speak and stand.
Star ranking: absolutely five stars
A violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere.    
    Ronald Reagan                  

E=mc² by David Bodanis ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version:  
This book is a well laid out explanation of each part of the equation, its history, and its role in our universe.
Long Version:

The genesis of David Bodanis’ book was an interview he read in which actress Cameron Diaz expressed the desire-serious or in jest-to know what E=mc² really meant.  Bodanis realized that the truth is that very few people have even a rudimentary knowledge of the usefulness of the world’s most famous equation; this book is his attempt to rectify that.
The format chosen is an interesting one.  Those who are true novices to physics-or lack interest in pursuing the equation beyond the basics-can read the front half of the book and walk away far more knowledgeable than they were when they picked it up.  After a brief introduction to the time and place in which Einstein generated the paper which introduce the theory to the scientific world, Bodanis goes on to break down the equation and discuss each of its parts separately.  What do they mean, and how do they interact with each other?  The reader is then led on a quick trip through history with regards to how the scientific community used the theory-the race to be the first to build “The Bomb” during World War II.  Finally, the author discusses the theory in our universe.  Those not interested in a brain drain of a read would still likely read the Epilogue, which discusses what else Einstein did, and the interesting appendix, which gives closure regarding the other key participants.
Of particular interest with regards to the structure of the book are the notes.  If you would like to know more details (and are not afraid of either the odd equation or in depth descriptions), Bodanis suggests that you read the notes, where he has taken things a bit further.  It is here that I have a bone to pick.  The format that was chosen was that of endnotes, as opposed to footnotes.  When endnotes are used, there is absolutely no indication within the text that there is a back of the book furtherance of the topic-two members of our book club did not even realize they were there and thus missed the opportunity to add to their reading experience.  For those readers that do choose to read the endnotes concurrent with the front half of the book, you are left constantly flipping between the text and the notes to see if you have reached the next note (they are listed by page number).  This is extremely disruptive to the flow of a book which requires some level of concentration to read and annoyed me to no end.  Footnotes within the text would have been grand.  As a side note, a member of our group tried to read the e-reader version.  Footnotes would have enabled her to flip from text to notes with ease.  As it was, she quickly gave up on trying to maneuver between the two.
The final section, a guide to further reading, is one of the finest source guides I have ever seen.  Books are divided into categories and are each given a paragraph of explanation designed to help the reader ascertain if they are a good fit for their reading list.

An interesting side story for me was the number of women who have been involved in physics throughout the last two and a half centuries.  I found the various sections detailing their stories to be one of the most engrossing aspects of the book.  Not only were they not at home tending children and embroidering, they were competing in one of the most intellectual of fields-and one dominated by men of ego.

Our book club found this to be a wonderful discussion book.  Our top topics were the role of women in the world of physics and how religious faith and physics intersect, both for the scientists, and for casual readers of the topic.  In addition, we spent a fair amount of time discussing various events on the road to weaponization of which we had not been previously aware.
Bodanis tops off his two leveled read with one final feat-he has a website to which he directs the serious student for further, more in depth, study.  Whether you are interested in a basic explanation of a complicated theory, have a fascination with physics and would like to know more, or would like to go beyond your high school physics knowledge, this book is likely to fit your need.
Star ranking: four stars

Monday, May 16, 2011


Quick Version:
Jacob De Zoet, an inconsequential clerk, hopes to make his fortune in Japan and return to the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart.  But life on Dejima, the Dutch trading post in early 19th Century Nagasaki harbor, does not always follow the chosen path of her inhabitants.
Long Version:
A bright young man, Jacob De Zoet was fairly certain of his ability to make a fortune and a reputation working for the Dutch East India trading company on Dejima, their island trading enclave in Nagasaki harbor, thereby rendering him acceptable to the father of the girl he wants to marry.
Jacob is a very solid character; he stands strong in his integrity-to the point of injuring his future prospects and rendering his fictional self an almost unbelievable character.  Author David Mitchell does a good job sketching a stable, solid character, but Jacob is so righteous that I had trouble accepting him.  He is clearly shown to be a very religious man-however, no man is perfect, and Jacob would have felt a bit more credible had he been a bit more flawed.
In its historical feel, the book reminded me a lot of James Clavell’s [B]Shogun[/B], although certainly not as broad in scope; [B]Thousand Autumns[/B] paints a vivid picture of the time and place in which it is set.
While I was disappointed in the characterization of Jacob, I must admit that the plot does not follow a predictable path, either in his life nor in the lives of his fellows.  Some aspects of the plot I found unbelievable, some I loved for how well they wove Japanese culture into the framework of the book, and some simply did not leave me feeling fulfilled (in other words, did not resolve the way I wanted them to resolve).
I chose, based upon several recommendations, to listen to this one on audio; I had been well advised to do so.  Narrators Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox both do an excellent job breathing life into their subjects.  Overall, this is a solid piece of historical fiction which gets my recommendation both as a novel and as a riveting audio performance.  It will definitely have me seeking out other works by David Mitchell.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

TIM AND THE ICEBERG by Paul Cotes ✰✰✰

Quick Version:
On a hot day, a young boy goes on a journey to find and bring home an iceberg.
Long Version:
Tim and his grandpa are playing on the beach on a very hot summer day.  When Grandpa goes in search of lemonade, Tim decides to sail to the North Pole and bring back an iceberg.  Along the way he encounters a number of things which might be found on such a journey.  The story flows very nicely, follows the path one might expect when a boy tugs an iceberg south, and is resolved in a way sure to get a smile out of your child.
First let me say that if you are looking for a sweet story with lovely watercolor illustrations well suited to the book’s beach setting, there is much to enjoy here, and you would likely give this book four stars.  Our hang-up with the book is probably an unusual one.
One of the things that we really liked about the book was that animals were given specific names.  We also thought it a nice touch that Tim sails past an oil rig; I was surprised to discover that, despite living in Alaska, my seven year old had no idea what an ocean rig looked like!
However, there was one page glaringly missing for us-a facts page at the conclusion of the book.  Given the content of the book, we flipped the last page of the story, fully expecting it to be there, and it wasn’t!  There could have been blurbs on the animals and oil rigs, but two things in the book really opened the door for further explanation.  
First, Tim’s sail has 1621 on it.  Why?  My daughter knew that was the year of the Pilgrim’s First Thanksgiving, but that didn’t fit the story.  Neither did it match any major polar expedition that we could pull up on an internet search.  We were really curious why the author chose to put that date on Tim’s sail and would have loved an explanation. 
Second, at the end of the story ***spoiler alert***Tim and his grandpa put the remains of the iceberg in their lemonade.  Most children do not know that icebergs are not salty-a paragraph as to why would have been welcome at the end of the book.
I realize that this is a story book, not a non-fiction book, but this type of book makes such a perfect spring board for a child’s natural curiosity about the world around them and can be very beneficial as a transition from fiction to non-fiction.  We were disappointed that the perfect set-up that the book provided was not capitalized upon.
Target Audience: picture book crowd-ages 3 to 8

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Happiness of Pursuit by Davis Phinney (with Austin Murphy)

Quick Version:
This is the story of three generations of Phinneys-a story about life on a bike, life in a family, life in the spotlight, and life lived with devastating illness.
Long Version:
In the mid-1980s Davis Phinney and his 7-Eleven team cohorts took European cycling by storm as they demanded respect for American cyclists through their actions in the peloton.  As a teenager in Germany I followed their rise with great excitement-I even subscribed to Bicycling magazine-not for the gear guides and training tips but for articles about these young men.  In this memoir of a life well lived, Davis Phinney takes his reader through all the excitement of the eighteen years that he experienced The Life, as he calls it.  But this book is so very much more than a cycling memoir.
One might make the logical assumption, given the book’s title and the career of the author, that this is a book about bicycle racing.  And it is.  Those who avidly follow the sport will find lots of edge-of-your-seat action here.  However, the expression “life in the saddle” definitely has more than one meaning to Davis Phinney.  It is also a book about more than one man-The Happiness of Pursuit is really the story of three men, the author, his father, and his son.
The author, as many know, was a world class cyclist.  What many do not know is that Davis Phinney is afflicted with an early onset form of Parkinson’s Disease (the same illness from which Michael J. Fox suffers).  Davis takes us from the height of cycling’s glory to the depths of life in the grip of The Body Snatcher.   From a life of unparalleled physical potential to the inability to tie his shoes.  Along the way he refuses to let us pity him, instead providing us with an intimate portrait of personal courage such as I have rarely seen so well expressed in words.  The grit that carried him to the top of mountains on a road bike now carries him through the toughest challenge of his life, and he is an inspiration.  He credits two things with his ability to embrace this unexpected life: cycling and his father.
Damon Phinney was a rocket scientist.  Literally.  He was not a terribly involved father, and Davis always felt distance between them.  Until his dad was diagnosed with the Big C.  Cancer changed Damon in the most profound way imaginable.  He went from being emotionally unattached to immersing himself in the life of his son, from never smiling to smiling at everyone he met because he felt it lit up the world.  More than anything else, he set an example for his son regarding how to live with chronic illness, and not just live, but live an enhanced existence.  Damon got on a bike after his diagnosis and rode some of the same challenging road courses that his son competed on; Davis attributes the fact that he lived an unheard of nearly ten years post diagnosis to Damon’s refusal to hole up and die.  Damon Phinney is beautifully eulogized by his son; the reader can easily see the one in the other.
Taylor and Davis
(photo by Robert Beck)
The final Phinney the book follows is Taylor, Davis’ son.  Taylor is said by many to be one of the biggest talents in cycling today and is likely to be an Olympian to watch in London in 2012.  Davis gives readers a heart-wrenching look into how difficult it has been to see others handling the physical aspects of shepherding his son’s career.  Despite many high points in this often moving book, the story I will never forget is the one in which Davis relates a story of being in the follow car as Lance Armstrong (who was a mentor to Taylor) puts Taylor through his paces on a training run.  Davis, gazing through the window, experienced a bittersweet moment-thankful on the one hand for Lance being there for Taylor, but jealous too of the man on the bike beside his son.
Towards the end of the book, Davis sums things up:
Happiness comes from the pursuits within your life-whether those dreams are lofty Olympic ambitions or those smaller everyday goals that I now set for myself.  In fact, happiness occurs most often in those moments when I’m pursuing nothing more than allowing myself to be absorbed in the moment.  Just being.  

(quote from unedited galley and subject to be changed)
You will want time to ponder and a tissue box handy as you read this one.  I guarantee that while parts will make you want to stand up and cheer others will bring you to your knees in tears.  A moving, glorious tribute to life in all its forms.

Star Rating: absolutely five stars
Audience:  This book has so many aspects, so much to offer-everyone will find something to relate to here.

Release Date: 1 June 2011