Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Grabenstein)

Since our children are not agreeing about much right now, when they both recommended this book, I figured I should read it. Mr. Lemoncello is to books what Willy Wonka is to candy. There is a game. There is a time limit. There are alliances and betrayals. The bookworm becomes popular and, most importantly, there are lots and lots of books.

It’s an entertaining and vivid. I would love to visit that library.

On to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics.


Untwine (Danticat)

. . . to be good at drawing you need to simplify. You have to break things down into small parts, into lines, dashes, and dots. Bodies become shapes. Faces become circles. Chests become squares. Legs become cylinders and cones.

This quotation can apply to young adult fiction as well. And I don’t mean that to sound condescending – not at all. In Untwine, Danticat draws an achingly good story of what happens to one twin when the other dies. At one point, she (who for a few harrowing pages was thought to be the one who’d died) asks whether she can still call herself a twin. I do mean, though, much like young adult versions of books like Fast Food Nation (Chew on This) are created, I wonder what would happen if Danticat wrote this book again for adults. I sense that there’s more here – with the girl who causes the accident. This detail is perhaps too simplified.

Unlike many, Danticat gets her teenaged narrator right. I never sensed a false or overly wise moment. There are no wasted lines here. Based on my knowledge of what Danticat can do, though, I just yearned for more flesh on these bones. I attended a recent talk of Danticat’s and even (I’m bragging here) had a chance to meet her in person. Her sketches are better than most people’s detailed works. I can’t wait for what’s next.

A Little Life (Yanagihara)

The cover photo is perfect. The anguish matches the main character – Jude – perfectly.


And the title is interesting to contemplate. We have such little lives. We leave so little behind. There is so little life in Jude.

The writing here is exquisite and precise. Yanagihara telescopes between the large and small moments with dexterity and grace. There is an excess of coyness here which is hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but I’ll try. Jude has secrets – secrets he’s very much unwilling to share. As readers, we know some very bad things have happened to him by allusions to all-too-familiar situations – his being under the care of monks at a monastery, for example. So for a while, I could understand Yanagihara’s approach – Jude didn’t want to talk about his past, so she wouldn’t either. And her decision to reveal things coincides with his decision to start trusting people again. That makes sense. There was an excess of unnecessary teasing about Jude’s past, though. It became irritating.

Jude is surrounded by people who create art, while he, a lawyer, moves from being a defense attorney to a litigator for big pharma, much to the chagrin of the man who adopts him late in life. That was a welcome choice. We suffer so much with and for Jude that I think it was wise for Yanagihara to avoid painting him as completely noble. Indeed, I wondered why the anger that surfaces later in the book does not arrive sooner. He has plenty to resent.

Too much? Probably. Though I don’t doubt that many people suffer a multitude of tragedies, there is probably one large one too many in this novel. We stepped into movie-of-the-week territory at that point.

Yanagihara has more than a few moments of thoughtful insights, particularly about friendships and love and the territory that lies in between. These sections and others are powerful to read and consider, but when I put the book down, I could never satisfactorily eliminate that Yanagihara had overreached. Her ability to render small (perhaps the “little” of the title) moments so well gets washed away in such a large book. I will read her next one, but only if it’s more tightly written. And, as a last parting shot, I’m not sure the world needs more novels about rich guys in New York. So much of the territory – theatres, galleries, etc. – felt quite familiar.

Three Roads to the Alamo (Davis)

I think I may have finally found a use for e-books. So (too?) often, I find that non-fiction writers include too much detail. So there could be an abridged electronic version with links marked IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT. . .

Davis, from the very beginning, has a problem. It seems that there is not enough that is known for certain about Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. So he has to resort to a wide array of conditional phrases like “probably” and “may have” and “almost certainly.” I wonder if there’s some sort of historian’s thesaurus for such disclaimers. I also wonder why, at some point, an editor didn’t say to him, “We don’t really have enough information to make this book work.”

Due to the lack of verifiable information, Davis often indulges in long digressions about things he does know and these topics (like itemized debts or innumerable land deals and frauds) rarely drive the narrative forward. And they muddy the already complicated issues Davis does not do a good job of delineating.

Still, there are some interesting pieces that can be extracted from here. The first three pages are brilliant. It sets the tone for Davis’ theme of myth-making and myth-busting which is insightful. How and why do we create our own stories? How do such myths take on lives of their own? How are they useful to individuals? To groups? To history?

Davis’ book, subtitled The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis, captures America at a time of transition. While there are those who are trying to figure out lawful and fair ways to handle issues of land, there are others, including Bowie, trying to take advantage of the lack of certainty. Even the final battle is absolutely plagued by the absence of procedure – what Davis sometimes refers to as “an excess of democracy.”

There are some well-paced sections, particularly (and not surprisingly) at the end. But they do not, in the end, make reading the whole thing worthwhile.

Acts of Faith (Caputo)

As Nicholas Kristof works to keep South Sudan in the public’s eye, I coincidentally turned my attention to this novel, less because of the setting and more because I’d always heard good things about Caputo, and this one was the first I came across.

It is a multi-layered text. The only criticism I can offer is that it’s perhaps a bit too masculine. Even if that’s appropriate because that’s the world inhabited by those who do humanitarian aid work, the descriptions of the interactions between genders (including the sex scenes) are written from and informed by the male perspective.

Now back to the good stuff. The title gains more and more meaning as the admittedly long book (669). It is an act of faith to try to do what you perceive to be good the confused world Caputo presents. The characters struggle with trying to figure out what is right and to determine (at the same time) what is necessary. This only becomes more complicated when the question of profit is introduced, then the question of religion, and then love, and the question of individual situations vs. the greater good and the question of Africa, and so on.

Caputo’s insights, descriptions, and characterizations – together with his occasional majestic turn of the phrase (I underlined beautiful sentences on a regular basis) – and his ability to develop a range and balance of nuanced characters is just remarkable. It took me a while to warm to the book, but once Quinnette was introduced, things really took off. No one is fully good or fully bad. Everyone has motives.

I wondered a bit about the mystique ascribed to Africa. I kept waiting for a character to say, “Forget about it, Jake. It’s Africa.” But Caputo is not the first to make a place into a character; he’s not even the first to do that to Africa.

This book is epic, relevant, and provocative. We all have a certain kind of faith, no?




Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Desmond)

In Milwaukee, if the police are called three times to the same address in a given period of time, then the landlord can be cited. Annoyed, the landlord can then evict the tenant(s), generally poor women of color. So in order to maintain a stable address, these women sometimes choose not to call the police and instead choose to endure domestic violence in so they can keep their housing. Is Desmond the first to notice this vicious cycle? Or is he the first to see and publicize the problem with it? Who’s watching the big picture? As with so many of our current challenges, how do we simultaneously fix the system and help those who are ensnared in it break out?

Evicted is for the private housing business what The New Jim Crow is for mass incarceration and the school –> prison pipeline. We can no longer claim ignorance. We can no longer stand idly by. “If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources” (312).. We know too much. Desmond makes this connection as well (98):

If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.

How can we honestly wonder why we’ve lost any sense of community when we make it so hard for people, often poor women of color with children, to stay in one place?  Or we allow such awful housing that they often don’t want to stay in one place? And how hard is it to keep a job or do well in school (or different schools) if your address is constantly changing? Why do we wonder why these blocks instead become places where the police are so frequently summoned?

And, as with Michelle Alexander’s book, there can be no doubt that we are doing this on purpose because of racism and we are doing this for profit – we are seeking to make our profits off of those who have the least. We have to understand that poverty is a relationship (317), not by any means solely the responsibility of those who are poor.

Desmond has two suggestions, one is probably more palatable than the other. The short-term suggestion is to provide legal aid for those navigating the eviction process. Desmond points out how the presence of such assistance reduces the number of evictions (in favor of other mediated solutions). People have recently started saying that law school is too long. What if (and this is my idea) the final year was dedicated to service?

His other idea is more controversial – a Housing Choice Voucher Program. Perhaps because he’s noted some lessons from efforts to introduce vouchers into school choice, he offers some ideas about checks and balances. I don’t know all of the economic implications involved. But it’s time to start having the conversation. Past time.

I have a running and friendly debate with those who do community service work and focus on needs outside of the US. Why, I like to ask, don’t we seek to support those closest to home first instead of sending money or food or whatever else to another country? Why are there so many service programs that send people to Haiti? The answer I always get is that we have support programs here – a government that provides assistance and local organizations that do the same. Here’s the thing, though. They aren’t working.

I’m no ethnographer. Desmond explains his methodology and it seems sound to me.




Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Fink)

The ndeasy thing to say about this book is that it is remarkable. I can’t even begin to imagine how Fink found the information necessary to put together this compelling narrative. There’s material here for two books – first, what happened during those five days at Memorial and then what happened as a consequence of decisions made during those five days. Even the Epilogue – a focus on what we have and have not learned about emergency preparation and procedures – could, itself, be the seeds of another book (and is certainly required reading for those who make policy. Though I am not overly reliant or impressed by awards, I am not at all surprised that this book was a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Fink wisely omits discussion of the human and natural causes of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. That is not her subject. Instead, she focuses on what happened at one hospital (though there are useful peeks at what happened at others – they are present for the purposes of comparisons) and the decisions made by, well, that’s part of the problem – it’s unclear who made some of the decisions. But there were plenty of decisions made – by everyone from architects, to doctors and nurses, to helicopter pilots, to people sitting far away at corporate offices, but not too many – and this is part of Fink’s point – by patients and their advocates.

This book raises an incredible number of questions. How much time and money should be spent on emergency equipment, procedures, personnel and training that we hope to never use? Could we have really been ready for Hurricane Katrina (and Rita)? What can, realistically, be done to improve central issues like communication? How can procedures be streamlined so that significantly less time is spent on turf battles during a time of crisis? What is the best way to conduct triage at a time like this?

And then, afterwards, how can we evaluate and learn from such a disaster in order to improve our response the next time? To what extent should we judge (in a court of law) decisions made in such times – times that those of us outside the situation cannot possibly understand?

Someone (Eisenhower?) once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” I think that applies here. Find good people – and there are plenty on display here – give them what they need (training, materials, checks & balances, etc.) and then get out of their way. Do I agree with every decision made during those 5 days? No, but I wasn’t there, so my judgment means little. The conduct of some the key players after those five days – including a doctor at the center of the situation – does deserve serious scrutiny. Decisions made ‘on the ground’ can be understood, if not always supported. I think we should have very little tolerance for pre-meditated efforts to alter the narrative, no matter whose interests those alterations serve.