Category Archives: 4.5 stars

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

photo-4Book Description (Amazon): Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

My Review (Spoilers!–am I the only one who says that in River Song’s voice?):

Executive Summary: amazing

We selected this book for our “literary fiction” category for book club. Basically books that don’t fit into another obvious category. I had read this book before, probably about 10 years ago, and I loved it then, and I was happy to reread it. This book is seriously a must read. And it’s a very quick read too. And there is no way I am going to capture half the essence of this book in my review no matter how hard I try.

Christopher Boone is a 15 year old who lives in England with his father. The story is set in the first person. The story begins when Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington stabbed with a garden fork (I assume this is British vernacular for a pitchfork and Christopher points out that it is not an eating fork). Christopher is horrified and picks up Wellington, wondering who killed him and why when his owner (Mrs. Shears) comes out shrieking. We learn that Christopher knows every country in the world, their capitals and all of the prime numbers up to 7,057 (all book chapters are numbered with prime numbers). But he doesn’t understand other people’s emotions. (It is never clearly stated in the book but the author later stated in an interview that Christopher has a form of Asberger’s.)

After the introduction, Christopher clearly tells us that his is a murder mystery novel. His teacher, Siobhan (how is that name pronounced?) has encouraged him to write a book that he would like to read. And he likes murder mystery novels. And Sherlock Holmes (me too!) but not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he believes in things that aren’t real.

So back to the original story of the dog. After Mrs. Shears finds Christopher with the dog, she starts shouting at him, which makes him shut down–cover his ears and close his eyes and curl up and put his face on the ground. The police arrive and don’t understand. And Christopher doesn’t understand metaphors or any other statements that are not direct and obvious. So a bit of a misunderstanding turns into Christopher hitting a police officer and being taken to the police station. He likes the cell–it’s a nearly perfect cube. Eventually his father arrives and Christopher returns home.

Christopher’s mother died two years previously. She went to the hospital, and then died in the hospital due to a heart issue. Christopher assumes that she died of an aneurysm because embolisms only happen to old people and his mother was not old and she was active.

Throughout the book, we find out many details about Christopher–how he cannot tell a lie, how he loves red (has red food coloring so that he can dye ugly colored food red), hates yellow and brown for a variety of detailed reasons, has Good Days when he sees 4 red cars in a row on his way to school (but 4 yellow cars in a row make it a Black Day where he doesn’t talk to anyone). He doesn’t believe in heaven or anything that cannot be proven by science. He doesn’t like strangers but not because of “Stranger Danger” (which is where a strange man offers you a ride because he wants to do sex with you) but because he doesn’t like people who he has never met before, and how he hates France (who doesn’t lol).

Christopher decides that because it was a Good Day, he was going to investigate who killed Wellington despite his father’s previous protests. But his father isn’t home from work yet so Christopher goes to tell Mrs. Shears that he didn’t kill Wellington but he wants to find out who did. She tells him goodbye and closes the door in her face. He didn’t take the hint so he went around to her shed and found the garden fork in there (which either means it’s hers or a Red Herring). She finds him and tells him to go home before she calls the police so he goes home and says hello to his dad and his pet rat, Toby.

The following day he proceeds in the neighborhood despite not usually talking to strangers to do detective work. First he creates a map of his street and then proceeds on to talk to Mr. Thompson (no info), the black lady (unnamed) who tells him that perhaps he should ask his dad about who might want to make Mrs. Shears sad (but he can’t because his dad doesn’t want him doing detective work), Mr. Wise (who made a joke and laughed at him causing Christopher to walk off because he hates people laughing at him, and then Mrs. Alexander, an old lady who had a dog. He talked to her for a while and she invited him to tea. But since Christopher doesn’t go into other people’s homes, she went to bring him out some Orange Squash and some biscuits. When she didn’t return soon enough, Christopher left because he thought she was calling the police.

Christopher formulates a Chain of Reasoning to determine who would want to kill Wellington, and he determines it was probably Mr. Shears because he left her two years ago and never came back. Mrs. Shears would come over to Christopher’s house sometimes after Mr. Shears left and Christopher’s mom had died and tidy up. Christopher assumes that if Mr. Shears must dislike Mrs. Shears enough to get a divorce, he must dislike her enough to kill her dog. But no one told him why they got a divorce in the first place so he decides to find out.

Christopher goes to a special school with “stupid kids” (he’s not supposed to call them that. (They have learning difficulties or special needs). Christopher disagrees with the term learning difficulties because he says everyone has something that is difficult for them to learn or a special need like people who use artificial sweetener to prevent them from getting fat. Christopher is going to take his A-level maths class and get an A grade because he is not stupid. (A-levels are apparently used for determining competency in subjects for college. Something like an AP test I guess.) After he takes the A-level maths, he’s going to take A-level further maths and A-level physics and then go to university for a degree in some combination of maths and physics.

On his way home, Christopher thinks about how he sometimes thought his parents would get divorced because of him. They argued a lot, and his mother always got irritated with him. When he arrives home, his father is waiting for him. Mrs. Shears has called him. Christopher tells his father that he believes that Mr. Shears has killed Wellington. His father gets angry and makes Christopher promise to stop his “ridiculous game”.

It isn’t until the end of the week that he had a Super Good Day so he decides that he will go go to the shop at the end of the road to buy licorice laces and a Milky Bar and Mrs. Alexander is there. So he talks to her a bit without specifically doing any detective work. And Christopher’s father did not specifically tell him that he could not ask about Mr. Shears (he was just not allowed to mention Mr. Shears in their house, ask Mrs. Shears or anyone about who killed the bloody dog, not to go trespassing in other people’s gardens, and to stop this bloody detective game). So Christopher decides to ask Mrs. Alexander if she knows about Mr. Shears. She tells him that his father is probably right to tell him to not investigate Mr. Shears and that he probably knows why his father doesn’t like Mr. Shears very much. He gets out of Mrs. Anderson that his mother and Mr. Shears were “doing sex”, and he promises not to tell his father about the conversation.

The next day at school, Siobhan proofreads Christopher’s book and asks him whether he was upset to find out that his mother had had an affair with Mr. Shears but he doesn’t feel sad because his mother is dead and Mr. Shears isn’t around anymore so it doesn’t matter. That evening, his father finds his book and is very angry with Christopher. The other thing that Christopher wasn’t supposed to go sticking his nose in other people’s business. His father shouts at him and grabs his arm. He takes Christopher’s book and throws it in the trash. The next day they went to the Twycross Zoo as his father is trying to make up for things.

When he gets home from school on Monday, Christopher goes to get the book from the trash, but it’s no longer there. So he decides that his father has hidden it and he eventually finds the book in a box in his father’s closet, but he hears his father pulling up so he leaves the book for later. As he is putting the book back in the box, he sees a letter in the box that is addressed to him and the writing suggested it was written by 3 people–Siobhan, Mr. Loxely (a former teacher at his school), or his mother. He takes the letter with him and reads it later in his room. It was written by his mother, and it was postmarked 18 months after she died.

Six days later, he returns to the closet, and finds 43 letters addressed to him from his mother. He reads one after another until he realized that his mother wasn’t dead. She and Mr. Shears (Roger) had run off together to London, and Christopher’s father had lied to him. By the time Christopher’s father has returned, he has shut down fully and his father realizes what has happened.  After a hot bath, since he wants to come clean to Christopher, his father also admits that he was the one who killed Wellington because Mrs. Shears loved the dog more than she loved them. Christopher panics. He waits until his father falls asleep and then takes Toby, his Swiss Army knife, and his snacks and goes outside and hides until morning.

In the morning, he has to make a decision on what to do. After his process of elimination, he decides that because he now knows his mother’s address, he will go live with her. He takes his father’s ATM card from the house and proceeds to find his way to the train station. Through many unusual interactions, Christopher (and Toby) eventually find their way to his mother’s flat. His father is soon behind them, but Christopher refuses to go back with him because he is a murderer.

Christopher’s behavior is too much for Roger (who really does seem like a mega jerk) so eventually Christopher and his mother eventually move back to Swindon into their house, but not so that Christopher can take his A-level maths because his mother has already rescheduled them for next year. Christopher’s dad goes to live with his friend for a while and Christopher and his mom live in the house. He returns to his school and is able to get his A-level maths rescheduled and even though he is tired and upset, he takes them. Eventually Christopher and his mother move to a new place (what I presume to be a room in a house) and it isn’t working out very well because they had to share a bathroom. And then Toby died, but he was 2 years 7 months which is very old for a rat so it wasn’t that sad. But his mother wouldn’t let him get another one because of where they were living.

Christopher’s father continues to try to spend time with him, which doesn’t go very well at first. But then in a grand showing of peacemaking, Christopher’s father shows up with a two month old golden retriever. The dog will stay at his house and Christopher can come visit. And then Christopher got the results from his A-level maths and he got an A grade. And it made him happy. (That’s a big deal). Christopher named the dog Sandy and began to split time with both of his parents. And he planned to take his further A-level maths and get a First Class Honors degree (but it doesn’t have to be from a university in London) and he will become a scientist because he was brave and wrote a book and solved the mystery of who killed Wellington.

Verdict: 4.5 stars. Read this book. Trust me.

This book is just really great. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s every different emotion you can imagine. Interspersed within the main story are lots of great little tidbits–the milky way, how to calculate prime numbers, astronauts, Ask Marilyn’s Monty Hall Problem, formulas for animal populations, constellations, etc. that really make the book so entertaining to read (and so realistic that a child wrote it). It’s a great peek into a world which most of us will never experience, and yet at the same time a look at how the rest of us react to that world. I actually bought a copy of this book today (because I borrowed it electronically from the library) so that I can share it with others.


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Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenBook Description (Amazon):

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion.  His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit.  Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

My Review:

Executive summary: incredible

First of all, this is my review for last month’s book club book! Oops. I almost always finish my book before the meeting. But in fairness, I did have sinus surgery and foster six kittens this month. I’ve been busy. This book was worth it though. As a generality, I try to avoid biographies and non-fiction as I get distracted from them too easily. I also dislike war (or scary in general) stories too. (That’s one thing I like about book club is to be pushed a bit outside my “normal reading” comfort zone.) But this was such an interesting and well-written story, I never questioned finishing it.

Louis Zamperini was a bad-ass kid. Always getting in trouble. His older brother Pete finally convinced him to do track where he wildly excelled. He went to USC on a track scholarship. He switched to a different length (5000 m vs. 1500 m) and qualified to compete in the Berlin Olympics. (Not an important part to the story line, but I found it hilarious and interesting that the US Olympic team took a steamer from NY to Berlin and most of the athletes gained an excessive amount of weight on the way there eating all the free food!) Louie didn’t place at the Olympics but he was one of the younger members there, and he certainly had next time to achieve the elusive 4 minute mile time. He returned to the US and back to college. Then the war broke out and the 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled. Louie dropped out of school, tried to join the Air Corps but dropped out because of airsickness and became a movie extra. Then, he was drafted anyway.

After basic training, Louie was commissioned as an army officer. He was trained to do bombsighting. His brother Pete was in the navy. When Louie got to his final round of training in Washington, he first met Russell Allen Phillips, or Phil, who was the captain of the plane Louie would be on. Phil had a girl Cecy waiting for him in Indiana. Louie and Phil flew on a B-24, “the flying coffin”, and named it Super Man. (The author heavily foreshadowed the fact that their plane was going to go down with statistic after statistic of how terrible the B-24’s were. In fairness, she had introduced the book with 2 pages of Zamperini already on the life raft but I still found the statistics a little heavy handed that could have been footnotes or appendices instead.) The crew goes to Hawaii after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and bombs Japanese holds in the region. Mechanical problems plague all the planes, including Super Man who eventually was shot to bits during the bombing over Nauru. They managed to get the plane back to Funafuti (5 hours away) where most of the crew was nursed back to health and then were attacked by the Japanese. After the attack, Louie, Phil and a few others were sent back to Hawaii where they were sent out on a rescue mission on the Green Hornet, a notoriously bad plane. Not long after take-off, both leftward engines died, sending the plane into a spiral which eventually crashed into the water. Louie, Phil and Mac were the only survivors.

They managed to get two life rafts. However, the provisions in the life rafts amounted to several military chocolate bars, a few half-pint tins of water, a brass mirror, a flare gun, sea die, a set of fishing hooks and line, two air pumps and a set of pliers with a screwdriver. And a patch kit for each raft. Over night the first night at sea, Mac, in apparent desperation and fear, ate all the chocolate.

The search parties sent for them completely missed them. They continued drifting at sea catching rain during any storms and using birds to catch small fish to eat. Louis and Phil told stories and kept their minds sharp. Mac sunk into a depression and eventually succumbed to the elements on day 33. Louis and Phil lasted until day 47 where they landed on the Marshall Islands and became Japanese POWs.  They had weathered the elements, storms, shark attacks, and gun fire for 47 days, but nothing prepared them for this.

The Japanese as a culture had (have?) a strong sense of pride and honor and when they were about to be captured, they committed suicide before allowing themselves to be captured by the enemy. Assuming incorrectly that other cultures held this same view of things, they assumed anyone who allowed themselves to be captured was fair game for all sort of torment, all but fully ignoring the Geneva Convention. He eventually (multiple prison transfers) gets placed in a prison called Ofuna with a leader nicknamed “the Bird” who had his eyes on Louis (the Bird was at the previous prison that Louis was at also and started the abuse then). The Bird thinks up all sorts of tortures for Louis, but Louis never loses his fight (which in turn encourages the Bird to try harder to break him). They work the coal mine daily and the food keeps getting more and more scant.

Eventually the US bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Approximately a month later, Japan signed a formal surrender. In the mean time, the Bird realizes what happens to those who are on the losing side and sneaks off in the middle of the night. Supply ships find the prisons and drop more provisions than the men can handle. Many of them are given to civilians in nearby towns who have also been barely surviving. Eventually Louis’s prison is rescued and he returns to the US.

Phil also made it out of camp alive, going back to the US and marrying his longtime girlfriend Cecy who had never stopped waiting for him (in part due to a trip to visit a psychic). ❤

Louis obviously suffers PTSD, but uses his new relationship (and then marriage) to Cynthia Applegate as well as his new Olympic training to help distract him. However, his war injuries were too severe and his ankle was beyond repair. He would never run in another Olympics. This disastrous news leads Louie on a path to self-destruction of drinking and gambling. Cynthia leaves but then returns. Then Billy Graham comes to speak in USC and Cynthia sees the light of salvation. She tells Louie that she won’t divorce him and convinces him to go with her to see Graham speak again.

Louie remembers all the promises that he has made but not kept to God over his years of torture, and he forgets all about his previous plan to find and kill the Bird. He becomes a motivational speaker for Graham, and when he returns to Japan to speak in front of prison guards, he hugs them.

In the end, he never really re-meets the Bird who had evaded capture by working at small farms over the year, only resurfacing after the US agreed to stop punishing Japanese war criminals.

Verdict: 4.5 stars.

This book was an amazing story of strength. Louie’s mental, emotional, and physical strength throughout the book was beyond imagination. Not only did he survive, he helped Phil and many others to survive as well, and in the end, he gave back with love and forgiveness. The book was well-written, and got through a lot of the really horrific scenes in a way that was very matter-of-fact and didn’t give me nightmares. (Important to me.) I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

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The Blue Sweater – Jacqueline Novogratz

Book Description (Amazon):

The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who lblue_sweater_left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing that very sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That the sweater had made its trek all the way to Rwanda was ample evidence, she thought, of how we are all connected, how our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet.

From her first stumbling efforts as a young idealist venturing forth in Africa to the creation of the trailblazing organization she runs today, Novogratz tells gripping stories with unforgettable characters—women dancing in a Nairobi slum, unwed mothers starting a bakery, courageous survivors of the Rwandan genocide, entrepreneurs building services for the poor against impossible odds.
She shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called “patient capital” can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.
My Review:
Executive Summary: absolutely life changing
This book blew me away. Max was doing interviews recently and one of the questions for the interviewees was their favorite or most recently read books (great question!). One of the interviewees mentioned this one. He brought the name home to me, and after a quick look at the summary, I promptly requested it from the library. I am also planning on ordering my own copy so that I can share this story with others.
It’s also a tough book to summarize. Essentially it goes through Novogratz’s struggles and successes doing charitable work in Africa (and later India and Pakistan) over a period of about 30 years. It is auto-biographical, but I never thought it came off boastful or preachy or political in any way (which I appreciated). She begins her post-college life somewhat stumbling into a job in banking–a job which allows her to travel around the world. Unlike many privileged Americans, she spends time in the slum areas of her travels, not just the glitzy tourist destinations. This coupled with some disagreements with her boss leads her to abandon banking and take a job working for a nonprofit microfinance organization for women based in Nairobi. Initially the author hates the idea of catering specifically to women but that view changes throughout the book (realizing that helping a woman helps a whole family).
Her project in Nairobi doesn’t turn out very well as she is not very in tune to the culture of Africa. It’s a bit devastating, but in the end, she has learned some valuable lessons and takes on a new project in Rwanda. The Rwanda project was similar (microfinance loans to women) but it was actually successful. She also demonstrated running a charity like a business for the first time with a bakery for unwed mothers. This became the main theme of the book (how to run a charity like a business).
Novogratz returns to the USA to get an MBA at Stanford and then works for the Rockefeller Foundation where she initiates a program to teach wealthy people about charity (which I thought was really interesting). And then eventually she creates the “patient capital” investment company, Acumen Fund.
The issue that she is trying to address is that misguided charity often hurts the people receiving the charity. It’s something along the idea of give a man a fish or teach him to fish. However, it’s much more intricate than that. It’s not only teaching the skills but also investing in the infrastructure and economy to allow those skills to be honed. It’s a merging of empathy for people with the focus and conviction (and skillset) to help them. It’s listening and understanding the way that the local people do business and interact with each other to make the charity as effective as possible. Acumen Fund chooses to provide money for charitable organizations that are fully vested in their communities. They don’t just provide a product to the poor. They hire the poor, they expand technology and infrastructure all while providing something that will help the impoverished.
Verdict: 4.5-5 stars. This really, really made me think. The only downfall was that sometimes the writing was a bit matter-of-fact (Novogratz is not an author) and it was often hard to follow all the characters. Minor grievance for such a profound work.

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