Monday, January 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside a London crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence: Clive is Britain's most successful modern composer, and Vernon is editor of the newspaper The Judge. Gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers, too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister.

In the days that follow Molly's funeral, Clive and Vernon will make a pact with consequences that neither could have foreseen. Each will make a disastrous moral decision, their friendship will be tested to its limits, and Julian Garmony will be fighting for his political life. A sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel, Amsterdam is "as sheerly enjoyable a book as one is likely to pick up this year" (The Washington Post Book World).


Have you ever read a book where every time you stopped for a moment you wanted to regurgitate everything you'd just read to someone else in the room because you didn't want them to miss it?  That was this book for me.

Amsterdam is very short, just 200 pages, yet somehow McEwan is able to pack a lot into those pages.  Plus, his writing style is so smooth that I was surprised by how fast I was able to flow through each chapter.

The story starts on a somber note, the funeral of a woman named Molly who, we learn, had many lovers during her lifetime.  Two of those former lovers, Clive and Vernon, are long-time friends who are turning into old men, and Molly's death causes them to begin seeing things in a new light -- their lives, their careers and their futures.  They end up making a pact with one another, one that has disastrous consequences.

Although the subject matter is dark and morbid, I found the story itself funny and entertaining.  It is literary irony at its best.  I highly recommend this book for lovers of literary fiction.

Favorite quote: “He would work through the night and sleep until lunch. There wasn't really much else to do. Make something, and die.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Baby Doe Tabor: The Madwoman in the Cabin by Judy Nolte Temple

ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

The story of Baby Doe Tabor has seduced America for more than a century. Long before her body was found frozen in a Leadville shack near the Matchless Mine, Elizabeth McCourt “Baby Doe” Tabor was the stuff of legend. The stunning divorcĂ©e married Colorado’s wealthiest mining magnate and became the “Silver Queen of the West.” Blessed with two daughters, Horace and Baby Doe mesmerized the world with their wealth and extravagance.

But Baby Doe’s life was also a morality play. Almost overnight, the Tabors’ wealth disappeared when depression struck in 1893. Horace died six years later. According to the legend, one daughter left home never to return; the other died horribly. For thirty-five years, Baby Doe, who was considered mad, lived in solitude high in the Colorado Rockies.

Baby Doe Tabor left a record of her madness in a set of writings she called her “Dreams and Visions.” These were discovered after her death but never studied in detail—until now. Author Judy Nolte Temple retells Lizzie’s story with greater accuracy than any previous biographer and reveals a story more heartbreaking than the legend, giving voice to the woman behind the myth.


When I moved to Leadville, Colorado a few years ago I quickly learned that the Tabor family was a very important part of the local history.  It's hard to miss because the Tabor name is everywhere in Leadville -- there's the Tabor Grand Hotel (which is now apartments), the Tabor Home Museum, and the Tabor Opera House, to name a few.  Across the street from the Tabor Opera House there's a bar called the Silver Dollar Saloon where there's a large framed portrait on the wall of "Silver Dollar" Tabor, the daughter of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor.

As I started to learn more about this family's history, I became fascinated with it.  I learned that Horace Tabor struck it rich in the mining industry -- I don't know exact numbers, but he was so rich that he built things like opera houses and hotels that still have his name on them more than 100 years after his death.  This "rags-to-riches" story is only the beginning of the Tabor saga...and it's all down hill from here.

Tabor left his wife, Augusta, and scandalously married a much younger woman, Elizabeth "Baby Doe," with whom he had two children.  Only a few years into his second marriage, due to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (as well as poor financial decisions), Tabor lost ALL of his money.  Augusta, on the other hand, had diversified her investments and remained a wealthy woman.

Years later Horace Tabor died a poor man.  Although she was only in her forties when he died, Baby Doe never remarried.  According to legend, their oldest daughter left the area and disowned the family, while the youngest daughter got caught up in a life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll" (or whatever its equivalent was around 1915).  Baby Doe lived by herself in a small cabin for 35 years waiting in vain for the Matchless Mine to return to what it once was. At 81-years-old she was found frozen to death.

Happy story, right?

Here's a picture of my kids outside of the Matchless Mine cabin a couple years ago:

After visiting the cabin and learning this story in bits and pieces our first few months in Leadville, I wanted to learn more about why an entire community was so proud of their ties to these people.  I found Baby Doe Tabor: The Madwoman in the Cabin on Amazon and ordered it right away.

That was a lot of build up for my review, huh?

All of that said, I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I have to admit that it took me two years to finish it. I kept putting it aside and finally had to force myself to read the last few chapters.

Fortunately the first two chapters (or so) were great. Judy Nolte Temple covers the history of the Tabor family and the Leadville area in great detail, and that was exactly what I was looking for.  However, somewhere around chapter 3 Temple started really pushing a feminist sociological agenda, which would be fine if that's what the reader is looking for, but it wasn't what I was looking for.  I just wanted to know the real story of the Tabor family.  Now, having read the book all the way through, I realize I probably should have just stopped in the middle and called it good.  

If you're interested in the history of Leadville and/or the Tabor family, I highly recommend the first 2-3 chapters of this book.  The beginning is worth reading, but I wouldn't waste your time with the rest of it unless you're really interested in things like the author's detailed theories about the encrypted notes on Baby Doe's calendar and whether or not they meant that Silver Dollar may have had one or more abortions. (yawn)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers"--the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?

His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Brilliant and entertaining, Outliers is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.


Last year I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  In case you missed it, you can read my review of that book here.  I enjoyed Blink so much that after reading it I added all of Gladwell's other books to my "to read" list. I'm glad I did because I found Outliers equally as fascinating.

In Outliers, Gladwell dispels the myth of the "self-made man."  He shows how things like the timing of a person's birth, their background, culture, and other factors can contribute to one's success in ways that are often not immediately obvious. I found his research and stories to be very interesting.  Gladwell covers everything from professional hockey players to successful lawyers to Bill Gates and even the Beatles. He gives his readers a new perspective on how people come to be successful.

I highly recommend this book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell. Jacob was there because his luck had run out-orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act-in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival. Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.


I listened to this in audiobook format during my road trip over the holidays.  I had read a rave review about the audio performance and couldn't agree more -- the narration/performance is fabulous!  If audiobooks aren't your thing and you prefer the print format, I'm sure it is equally as entertaining because the story itself is so much fun. It includes a little bit of history in post-Depression America, a little bit of romance and a lot of adventure!

We meet Jacob Jankowski as a college student approaching his final exams when suddenly his life takes an unexpected turn and he finds himself joining a travelling circus crew.  The circus life is exciting, but dangerous, and Jacob's experiences over the period of just a few months change his life forever.  We also meet Jacob as a 90-year-old man reflecting back on his adventurous life.  The story is beautiful and full of surprises.

I highly recommend this book!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Christmas Letters by Lee Smith


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

In The Christmas Letters, three generations of women reveal their stories of love and marriage in the letters they write to family and friends during the holidays. It's a down-home Christmas story about tradition, family, and the shared experiences of women.

Here, in a letter of her own, Lee Smith explains how she was inspired to write this celebrated epistolary novel:

Dear Friends,

Like me, you probably get Christmas letters every year. I read every word and save every letter. Because every Christmas letter is the story of a life, and what story can be more interesting than the story of our lives? Often, it is the story of an entire family. But you also have to read between the lines with Christmas letters. Sometimes, what is not said is even more important than what is on the page.

In The Christmas Letters, I have used this familiar format to illumine the lives, hopes, dreams, and disappointments of three generations of American women. Much of the story of The Christmas Letters is also told through shared recipes. As Mary, my favorite character, says, "I feel as if I have written out my life story in recipes! The Cool Whip and mushroom soup years, the hibachi and fondue period, then the quiche and crepes phase, and now it's these salsa years."

I wrote this little book for the same reason I write to my friends and relatives every holiday--Christmas letters give us a chance to remember and celebrate who we are.

With warmest greetings, Lee Smith


I thought this would be a good book to read over Christmas.  It was interesting enough that I was able to finish it, but I wouldn't recommend it for a few reasons:

  1. There is a lack of character development, so it was hard to really care about the women writing the letters or the family members they were writing about.  
  2. The time lapse between letters was too long (as in a decade or more at a time).  This kind of ties in with #1 -- more letters/content to fill in the space would have helped with character development and connection for the reader. 
  3. Phrases like "I apologize for not sending a letter the last few years" and "my life is just so busy" got very repetitive and annoying.  Realistically those probably are phrases contained in most Christmas letters written by women/mothers but, for me, it just got old.  This also ties in with #2 -- if there had been more content to fill the spaces in between the letters, then every letter wouldn't have needed to start with one (or both) of those two phrases.