Monthly Archives: August 2013

Surprising Book Facts

So a friend posted this on Facebook (which means that I’m not sure whether it’s 100% true or not) and I think it is really curious:

books

I find the most surprising of these to be the 42% of college graduates never read another book and that 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year. I am taking that to mean that no one in the family read a book. That is shocking to me. I really hope that’s not true.

This is why I donated to the book drive at my local elementary school. And why I buy my friends books when they have children. Who needs another plastic toy?!

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Brooklyn, NY: A Grim Retrospective–Jerry Castaldo (A Memoir)

photo(6)Book Description (Amazon):

This explosive autobiographical volume is a gripping account of entertainer Jerry Castaldo growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, NY, his agonizing descent into the darkness of the city’s underbelly and his desperate struggle back to normalcy.

Celebrated NY Post columnist, author and playwright Chip Deffaa edited this dark, yet highly inspirational story.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Dark

This book was chosen for our biography/autobiography category. We chose it due to its length, which while I realize sounds a bit silly for a book club. It’s simply just too hard for a lot of people to crank through a 500+ page book in a month. And most biographies or autobiographies are easily that length.

This book has nearly a perfect 5 star rating on Amazon, but yet if you look on wikipedia for the author, there is no article. Nothing of him as a writer or as a performer. The book was a bit of an enigma.

The story begins when Jerry is 16 and goes essentially until he is 31. And then there is a small chapter at the end which is current (2010). Jerry grew up in Brooklyn back when it wasn’t full of hipsters. However for the book being titled “Brooklyn, NY…”, it talks very little about the city itself. I was actually expecting somewhat of a memoir of the city, which I guess indirectly it was. Jerry is a bad kid. He grew up with a disabled, poor mother and a father who was never around. He stopped going to school in the 8th grade and slowly slipped into a live of crime and drugs. (There is a bit of a note at the beginning of the book where the author says that he has always been a good person. He started as one and returned to one but life essentially got in the way.)

He eventually gets too deep into trouble with too many of the wrong people and decides to enlist in the US Army and is shipped off to Germany. I found the thought of smoking joints in the airplane bathroom just absolutely incredible. If you did something like that these days, you’d be in big trouble. When he first arrives, he’s on the straight and narrow but eventually he relapses (a common theme of the book). He totals his car (another common theme) on the Autobahn and is taken to jail. While in jail, he pretends to commit suicide and is taken to a psych hospital. This temporarily helps him with his mental health but most importantly, it means he is not dishonorably discharged so he keeps his VA benefits.

Back in the US, he proceeds with a sine curve of life. He gets a job, he gets some money, he falls back into drugs and alcohol and loses everything. Over and over and over. He’s obviously a very bright individual as he scored well on the entry tests to get into the Army and was placed in a desk job. He at one point is the top flight attendant in his class. He worked on Wall Street. He seems to be an autodidact as it was mentioned a few times about how much he read, especially when he wanted to learn something. I think that the intelligence actually was part of his issue. He thought that he could just out-smart his addiction, and continued to try to “white knuckle” the recovery.

The two jobs that he keeps coming back to are personal training and performing. He meets a wide variety of important people through these jobs from political figures to celebrities, some of whom he initially has great rapport (like Jerry Seinfeld). Inevitably he relapses, and they shun him to protect their own investments. His long term girlfriend Mary Lou eventually left him which might have been part of the catalyst to wake up and smell the roses. After she left him, he took the job as the flight attendant from which he was eventually fired. He then moved to Mexico to work on a resort (could there really be a worse place for a semi-recovering addict). He was sent home from that after a gross story involving diarrhea in a swimming pool (seriously, yuck). He landed on his feet yet once again working as a personal trainer at an exclusive club (Friars Club) for performers.  Like all other jobs, it was straight uphill and straight back down again.

On a somewhat insignificant date, November 1, he decided to go to a place that had been recommended to him by a concerned ER doctor. It was a center for addiction, specifically in Jerry’s case, AA. He began with one meeting and continued for over a year. 20 years later, he is still sober and working as an entertainer. He’s not famous (aka the lack of wikipedia article) but he does have a website and based on that, it seems like he does a lot of smaller events and does OK for himself.

Verdict: 4 stars

Even though this is not a book I would have chosen on my own (best thing about book club, imo), I think that for this type of book, it is by far the best I have read.

I actually really enjoyed the writing style of this book. I felt it suited the story well. Every chapter was titled with the year, how old that he was, and what the #1 song was. I’m not totally sure the relevance of the song, but I enjoyed that addition. The paragraphs were choppy, but in a way that worked. The book, only 200 pages to cover 15 years, was direct and to the point. He never sugar coated the bad things that he did, and the justification that he provided for them was always worded in a way that you knew that he only felt that way at the time (not in hindsight).

I don’t know a lot about addiction. While it runs in my family, it does not run in me at all. I don’t think I have ever been addicted to anything in my entire life (except perhaps sleep). So for me, it was interesting to read about someone who obviously was fully crippled by an addiction and quite candid about it. I found the justification parts specifically to be interesting. Early in the book, he mentions that he does bad things such as stealing because he wants to stick it to the man for making him poor when other people weren’t poor. I think maybe he was just addicted to the high he got from stealing and doing bad things with his friends. (Maybe someone should have Latarian read this book). Later in life, Jerry’s justification had changed probably because his social status had as well. Now it was that he could stop at any time. He had the willpower. He just enjoyed it. He just had a bad day.

I did find it a bit surprising how the book ended. He just woke up one day and decided that it was time to change. There wasn’t any one obvious reason, and it wasn’t as though he had been fired from other jobs many times before. Perhaps it was that one specific job. Perhaps it was a lifetime of accumulation. Who knows. I am glad that he got the help he needed and got back on his feet. Also being 31 myself, it was a little rewarding to think that your life can begin from now and be successful.

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The Plum Tree – Ellen Marie Wiseman

photo(5)Book Description (Amazon): A deeply moving and masterfully written story of human resilience and enduring love, The Plum Tree follows a young German woman through the chaos of World War II and its aftermath.

“Bloom where you’re planted,” is the advice Christine Bolz receives from her beloved Oma. But seventeen-year-old domestic Christine knows there is a whole world waiting beyond her small German village. It’s a world she’s begun to glimpse through music, books–and through Isaac Bauerman, the cultured son of the wealthy Jewish family she works for.

Yet the future she and Isaac dream of sharing faces greater challenges than their difference in stations. In the fall of 1938, Germany is changing rapidly under Hitler’s regime. Anti-Jewish posters are everywhere, dissenting talk is silenced, and a new law forbids Christine from returning to her job–and from having any relationship with Isaac. In the months and years that follow, Christine will confront the Gestapo’s wrath and the horrors of Dachau, desperate to be with the man she loves, to survive–and finally, to speak out.

Set against the backdrop of the German homefront, this is an unforgettable novel of courage and resolve, of the inhumanity of war, and the heartbreak and hope left in its wake.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Unrealistic

I thought this book was really poor. Obviously I am in the minority because it has a 4.5 star review on Amazon and I was the only one out of my book club who really disliked it. However, I just could not get into it.

The book begins by meeting Christine, a 17 year old in Germany in the late 1930s and her love interest Isaac. This is their first true encounter but they are very much in love (eye roll). Christine and her mother (Lutherans) work for the rich Bauermans (Jewish) and this is where Christine met Isaac.

Christine runs to go tell her best friend Kate about how in love she is and she finds out that Kate has her own love interest (Stefan) so Christine keeps Isaac a secret. (When Christine later tells Kate, Kate tells Christine that she can’t be in love because she hardly knows Isaac. (and I agree)) I wish the book had started a bit earlier to develop some sort of relationship.

As Christine walks home, she sees posters saying that no Jew can be a Reich citizen. When she returns home, she finds out that she and her mother are no longer working for the Bauermans since Jews can no longer employ non-Jews. Mutti goes one last time to the Bauermans and takes Isaac a note. He returns one to Christine and they agree to nighttime meetings. Christine confides in her sister Maria everything but the secret meetings.

Isaac’s family refuses to leave Germany. His mother who is only half-Jewish is convinced that it will be OK. Isaac disagrees with her but has no real option. He tells Christine that they should stop meeting. She attempts to seduce him but he tells her that he doesn’t want her carrying a Jewish baby (awkward).

Christine’s dad is drafted into the 6th Army and heads toward Russia.

Bombs begin to fall across Germany, and the bomb siren seems to go off constantly. The family with other neighbors pack into a root cellar (the same one where Christine tried to seduce Isaac). I did find this section to be interesting because it did put into perspective what the average German went through during World War 2 (I assume many other countries had similar bomb drills too).

Hitler visits their town and Christine with her blonde hair is selected to be one of the models of fine German (Aryan) breed stock. Yay. She tries to scrub Hitler’s touch off her hand with lye. Bombs continue to go off. Christine continues to wonder what is going on with Isaac until she foolishly goes to check on him. They are scheduled to leave that day to go to a “munitions factory”. Christine’s mom continues to worry about her husband. They receive a letter but Christine hides the fact that it’s dated a year prior.

Christine is devastated that Isaac has been taken, and takes solace in the woods. She has a random fleeting thought about this medieval church buried in the woods and how the tunnels are likely full of hiding Jews. The bomb siren goes off and when she returns to her home, she finds that her Opa was crushed trying to protect their home from burning.

Jewish prisoners are brought into the town to help rebuild the airbase. Christine and her family leave what little food they can spare for the starving prisoners. One day Christine forgets (she tries to avoid the twice daily prisoner marches from their camp to the air base) and stumbles into a riot of prisoners stealing from a sugar beet cart. She (of course) sees Isaac in the midst and sneaks him off and hides him in her attic. (Remember about the medieval church with the hidden tunnels. Nope. She didn’t even consider hiding him there.)

She gets him a shower and some clothes and finds that his father was killed nearly immediately. He isn’t sure what happened to his mother and sister as the women and men are separated. He tells her some of what has happened since he last saw her. The Nazis come to search homes for the escaped prisoner and unlike the usual meticulousness of them, they do not find Isaac.

Christine’s father reappears. He escaped Russia by hiding under the train car and then walking back to Germany. Uh huh. That seems believable. And such convenient timing too.

Since the Nazis are still looking for the escaped prisoner, they return and are more thorough this time. They find Isaac and Christine admits that she is at fault. The soldiers take both of them to Dachau. Isaac tells her that she should tell them that she is Christian and that she can cook so that hopefully she gets an easier time. So of course she does. She works in the home of one of the Lagerkommandants. He tells her that he is opposed to Hitler but remains in the camp so that he can document everything that happens for when the time comes. She befriends a girl Hannah who works in records. Hanna tells her that both Isaac’s mother and sister have died. Christine wants her to find out if Isaac is still alive but Hanna does not have access to men’s records, and then one day Hanna goes missing and the rumor is that she was caught looking in the men’s records. Christine who is undeterred keeps pressuring the Lagerkommandant to find out what happened to Isaac. She finally sees him one day on the other side of the fence and like a love struck idiot calls out “Don’t give up! I love you” and then he was shot.

The next day the war is over and Americans appear at Dachau. Hanna reappears with her brother (uh huh). They break into the warehouses and eat and get warmer clothes while they wait. Christine eventually goes home and sort of befriends this American soldier named Jake. Her whole family is there including Maria who spent time digging trenches somewhere. Eventually we find out that Maria was assaulted by the Russians and is carrying a baby. The writing at this part is terrible and you don’t really know what is going on. Maria continues to retreat within herself.

Christine meets with Kate who does not believe her stories at all. Kate is happy with Stefan despite Christine’s insistence that he was a guard at Dachau. Stefan corners Christine the next day and threatens her. Yet, like a giant idiot, she calls him out at church for being a Nazi (what is the pastor going to do? really?). They get home and Maria has died by falling (throwing herself down the stairs), and the next day her father goes missing. Stefan tells Christine that he had her father sent to be tried for war crimes and she solicits Jake for money to take the train to go to rescue her father. Oh poor Jake. She gets there…and finds ISAAC. Boy isn’t that convenient. He apparently faked being dead and then climbed out of the dirt that they buried him in and then hid in the woods. Totally realistic. She sees the Lagerkommandant and they set a trap for Stefan who falls for it and is convicted.

And the last chapter seems to be some time in the future. Back at her parents’ house. Everyone together. Pregnant with a baby who will either be named Maria or Abraham (Isaac’s father’s name). Happily. Ever. After.

Verdict: 2.5 Stars

If you want to read a well-written, believable (because it’s non-fiction) story about WW2, read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. This poorly written hodge-podge book just doesn’t hold a candle to that one. I appreciate the fact that there is some info about how normal German citizens lived during the war. But the rest of it just seemed forced. As an aside, this was the author’s first book. It was also apparently rejected by publishers about 70-some times. Also, does anyone actually use the word “kitty-corner”? I’ve lived in 3 regions of the US and never once heard that.

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The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

So it’s been a while since I posted last. I’ve been reading all 700 pages of The Fountainhead. Forgive me. 🙂

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Book Description (Amazon):

The Fountainhead has become an enduring piece of literature, more popular now than when published in 1943. On the surface, it is a story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth Toohey. But the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual, the tug between good and evil, the threat of fascism. The confrontation of those themes, along with the amazing stroke of Rand’s writing, combine to give this book its enduring influence.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Egotistical

So we had The Fountainhead in our library but neither my husband nor I had read it yet. I was waiting on my book club book for next month to come in from the library (which I am going to now have to read very consistently the next few days for our meeting on Monday!) so I decided to finally just read this in the meantime.

First things first, I really liked the writing style. For a book written in the early 40s, the sentences aren’t a full paragraph long full of flowery language. The book is certainly long and I think that there are some sections that could have been condensed more, but I never got to the end of a sentence/paragraph with no idea what was going on. I also felt like the book had a modern feel to it despite knowing that it wasn’t.

So we start the book meeting Peter Keating and Howard Roark in college at Stanton Institute of Technology. Roark is a boarder in the home that Peter lives in with his mother. Peter has just graduated on the day that Roark gets kicked out of school because of his “radical ideas”, aka not copying classical architecture but creating his own ideas. Peter seeks Roark’s opinion on whether to take the scholarship to go to Europe or to accept a job with Peter Francon in New York. (Also we learn that Peter is a mama’s boy and is easily influenced by her.) Roark admits that he is going to try to get a job in New York working for Henry Cameron–a “crazy” old architect who has fallen out of public favor. Keating is aghast that Roark would go so against the grain.

Peter moves up quickly in Francon’s office. He lies, cheats and steals (Roark’s ideas mostly) to move up the ladder, aligning himself to be a partner. He succeeds once he sort of accidentally causes the death of current partner Heyer. He has become engaged to Catherine however he treats her poorly and his mother thinks that he should marry someone better who will be able to help his career (trophy wife). Catherine lives with her uncle, Ellsworth Toohey who Peter refuses to meet for quite some time.

At the same time, Cameron’s office has gone bankrupt and Cameron is in the hospital. Roark goes to work for Francon but does not last long. He then moves to working for another architect which seems to be working ok, but Roark realizes that compromise is not something that he can do. He ends up leaving and working in a granite quarry in Connecticut where he meets Dominique Francon (Keating’s boss’s daughter). Dominique and Roark fall in lust (complete with a possible rape? I really am not sure whether this was or was not?) and then in love. And then Dominique can’t stand to be with him because she feels that she doesn’t deserve happiness (I think) so she leaves Connecticut and begins writing reports blasting Roark’s architecture.

Dominique and Ellsworth Toohey both work at The Banner, a tabloid style newspaper in New York. Toohey eventually meets and befriends Peter (ignoring mostly any connection to his niece) and writes many articles proclaiming Peter’s architecture prowess. Roark is never mentioned in Toohey’s column, and he is lambasted in Dominique’s (although she sees him frequently). I wasn’t exactly sure the point of this at the time. Roark designs the Enright House for Austen Heller and then is suggested by Ellsworth Toohey to design a “temple for the human spirit”. Roark designs the temple he imagines complete with a nude statue of Dominique. Ellsworth leads the crusade criticizing the temple and Roark is eventually sued for damages to “fix” the temple. He loses the court case and a lot of money despite Dominque defending him in court. As punishment (to herself) for this, she marries Peter Keating and is most subservient (almost to the point of hilarity). As punishment in general, she is fired from her job at The Banner as their ideas do not align.

We are introduced to Gail Wynand, the owner of The Banner. He started from nothing and now runs some of the biggest companies around. He is interested in finding an architect for a development called Stoneridge, having gone through many already. Toohey suggests to his buddy Peter that Dominique should talk to Wynand since Wynand loves beautiful women. Toohey delivers the nude statue of Dominique (that he had secretly purchased from the demolition of the temple) to Wynand to “seal the deal”. Dominique meets Wynand who falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. They make a deal with Peter that he will get the contract for Stoneridge if Wynand can marry Dominique. Peter agrees. (Idiot). Dominique seems to almost love Wynand but ultimately agrees because the idea of Wynand is everything she is against. (But before she marries Wynand, she meets Steven Mallory and finds that Roark is in Clayton, Ohio. So she stops to visit him one last time.)

Toohey starts pulling away from Peter (as Dominique marrying Wynand was not part of his plan). Toohey has been playing all sides of everything particularly through his article in The Banner. He sneaks in props for material that he deems helpful to his cause.

Meanwhile, Roark’s popularity starts to grow again. He designs a vacation spot in Monadnock Valley which turns out to be wildly successful much to the surprise of the owners and investors who had intended for it to be a write off failure (who are eventually taken to trial for their scam). He is then called to meet Wynand to design Wynand’s home. Dominique realizes immediately that Roark is the designer. Roark finds kinship with Wynand (the feeling is mutual).

Keating’s career is quickly dissolving when he hears about a housing project for the poor called Cortlandt which he knows will help prolong his business. He pressures Toohey into helping him get the bid which he does. Of course Keating asks Roark to help him because he can’t do anything by himself. Roark agrees with a contract that everything must be built EXACTLY as he designed. Not surprisingly, Keating is unable to keep the meddlers out and Toohey helps push a bunch of changes to the design.

When Roark finds out, he does the only natural thing. He explodes the housing development and then of course is taken to court. Dominique defends him diligently (as she was there to help him during the explosion), and Wynand tries his best to help Roark as well. This leads to a mass picket of The Banner (employees and readers) after Wynand fired Toohey. Eventually Wynand sells out, agrees to the union’s demands and hires everyone back (save Toohey).  In the end he hires Toohey back the night that he decides to quit printing the paper for good. Bazinga!

The trial of Roark for the destruction of the housing complex lasts about the last 20 pages or so of the book. And honestly, you could basically summarize the entire book by reading just those pages. I almost felt like I had wasted my time reading the rest of the book when the entire point was summed up so neatly in such a short time. Essentially Roark argues that mankind always destroys the people who are the masters of innovation, but they are quick to utilize the ideas of those people and make the ideas their own. (i.e. Peter is quick to criticize Roark’s designs and choices but every time he is in trouble, he calls on Roark to help him.) He discusses how often when individuals are forced to compromise, the best design never happens (similar to his time spent working for Snyte and the project that Peter worked on with the other architects that was a huge failure). In the end, Roark is acquitted and he and Dominique get married and live happily ever after (presumably even though neither one seems particularly happy).

For the most part, I agree with the book. The individual is always smarter than the masses. Masses can be led to believe in and do very stupid things and I think history has shown that time and time again. Power and greed are strong forces and many times they get the better of people. On the flip side though, can one single person actually accomplish anything? I’m not sure. Sure Roark did not use collaboration or compromise in his designs, but he didn’t build the structures himself. He had a team of drafters who helped him. He had a team of builders who helped him. Roark himself got to where he was by learning and studying building and material techniques. He just chose to apply those techniques differently.

Verdict: 4 stars

While I don’t 100% agree with the author’s point of view, I do agree with it in a theoretical sense. And I really enjoy “thought” books like this which make me question my own influence and decisions. (Am I going along with that because of something I have seen/read/heard?) Which leads me to wonder, was Ayn Rand the original hipster?

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