Orphan Train

Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline
2013/ 273 pages
rating 5/ Young Adult – hist. fict.

Young Adult – I’d say ages 16 to 20 because it’s not action based and it tries to weave a theme behind the idea of what you take and what you leave behind. This is such a cliché it was only interesting when Vivian, as an old woman, says she’s been left behind. (heh)

Actually, I wasn’t going to bother with this book, but a group had chosen it, I was kind of out of things to read, and it was offered at a somewhat reduced price. So I caved, and I was mostly bored as I’m not a fan of YA lit.

There is one redeeming aspect to reading the occasional stupid book, I appreciate the good ones even more. And the book did improve somewhat after page 131. And I chuckled in recognition of lefse and St. Olaf and there were a few humorous passages scattered around, more toward the end. (Humor is a personal issue, I suppose.) Finally, the background information at the end of the book was fairly good for young adults – or anyone maybe who doesn’t have a degree in history and 50 years of reading history on their own.

The two major plot threads are set off in different chapters with more chapters given to Vivian’s story. Actually, the first thread is more like a frame story. And I suppose they come together in the last few chapters.

Thread One: 2011 – Molly (?) is a 16-year old foster child due to her father’s death and her mother’s incapacity by drug abuse. She is “arrested” for stealing a book from the school library and sentenced to community service. The service turns out to be helping 91-year old Vivian Daly clean out her attic. As they sort through her stuff the old woman remembers her life.

Thread Two: 1929 – The father and siblings of 9-year old Niamh (Neev) are killed and her mother incurably wounded in an apartment fire in NY tenement so she is held in an orphanage and then placed on a train to Minnesota where it is hoped she will be taken in by a family. She and her family have arrived from Ireland not too long prior.

So the story of Niamh’s life unfolds and one element which kept me reading was that I actually came to care about her. This is not usually a factor in whether I enjoy a book but … I want to find out how she got from being a train orphan to the big house she lives in at age 91.

And of course there’s the mirroring of Molly’s story in Vivian’s – just to mention it.

I’d recommend this to either old ladies or young ones – (16 and up generally because I don’t think most younger girls would be interested.

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Flash Boys

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
by Michael Lewis
2013 / 274 pages
Rating 8.5 / nonfiction- business

This is a very informative book on a very confusing subject and although I think Lewis does his best, the complexities of computers and the internet in the stock market are still not completely clear to me – but I learned a lot. Part of the reason is there is no straight forward chronology.

Lewis is known for his reporting in the fields of finance and sports and I’ve now read 3 of the finance books – all very good!

Ever since the Wall Street crash of 1987 computers have been viewed as necessary evils in stock trading. Rules are made by the SEC but at the same time new loopholes are created. As time went on internet trading became the only game in town and the idea of “front-running” (a way of getting the best price before the other guy due to information), an old, old, old trick, had new opportunity. Then came high-speed, fiber internet which pushed speed of transactions to very near real-time. Milliseconds became hugely important to “High-Frequency Traders” (HFTs). Whomever’s cable was closest to the source won. lol

“Dark pools” were exchange companies established by some very large investors to gain private and faster access to better trades. Dark pools hid their trades from the public. Dark pools were scary. They were predatory.

Into this arena came a company which simply built their own very straight (!) fiber line from Chicago to New York. Then they played hardball and sold time to banks and brokerage firms. When this new fiber cable came into play the users of that fiber line got a huge advantage 3 milliseconds huge.

And then along came Brad Katsuyama, a guy out of a Canadian bank who wanted answers. Along with a partner, Rob Park, and a few others, he developed a little analytical tool called Thor to beat what the dark pools did. Thor delayed actual trades. But that wasn’t enough, in Brad’s mind, to level the playing field, so he decided to start his own exchange. And he brought some impressive talent on board. Together, these guys were going to clean up Wall Street.

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Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspirational Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail
by Ben
2014 /
Rating 8 / non-fiction -biography

Back in 1955 a 67-year old woman from Ohio named Emma Gatewood decided to hike the Appalachian Trail on her own. Widowed with children (11 of them) who were grown and gone, Emma was strong and healthy and had been an active outdoors person all her life. She’d first read about the trail a few years prior and just got smitten with the idea of walking the whole thing. When she found out that only a very few men and no women had done it she became determined.

So a few years later with less than 20 pounds of carry weight and with sneakers for shoes (Keds) she set off from a place in Georgia thinking she’d make it to Maine in a few months. She made it – and was written up, with photos, in many newspapers and magazines throughout the US. The story is well documented.

But it’s also the story of spousal abuse, Appalachia, hurricanes, the kindness of strangers, the Civil Rights struggle, other “thru-walkers” of the trail, and Emma’s life in general – “Why did she do it?”

The story is well written and easy-reading. It moves fast and feels like it’s winding up about midway, but no, there is plenty of interesting material for the whole book. Very enjoyable read.

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The Reef

The Reef
by Edith Wharton
1912/ 162 pages
rating – classic US lit

I’ve read maybe a half dozen of Wharton’s novels and novellas and generally enjoy them – especially those with the pointed criticism of “society” in her era and the Gilded Age. The Reef was one of her earlier works, published just after the depressing Ethan Frome. I think her later works are much better, but they’re not happy books either.

The first 30 or so pages of The Reef were so completely boring with unnecessarily difficult language I almost quit, but when I got to Anna’s section, Book 2, page 36, I caught a very satisfying interest – and it seemed the reading was easier as well. Still, it took much longer than I expected a 165 page book to take, the end seemed to drag on and on, but Wharton, like her contemporaries, liked to make sure all the ends were tied.

George Darrow, an American diplomat living in London, is waiting to hear from his former lover, Anna Leath, who is recently widowed. She puts him off even while he is en route to see her. During a waiting time in Paris he meets and helps the young, poor, inexperienced and also American Sophy Viner. She wants to become an actress and they become romantically involved. Letters to Anne don’t get mailed, a reply is burned up, etc, and they procrastinate leaving each other.

The narrative slides over to Anna Leath, waiting for Darrow at her chateau and chatting with her young adult stepson, Owen, who saw Darrow with Sophy at the theater in Paris. Anna’s own daughter Effie is quite young, about 12, maybe?

Darrow arrives and he and Anna are still very much in love and decide to marry. Then Effie gets a new governess. It’s Sophy. Darrow and Sophy haven’t seen each other for five months. Darrow tells Anne they met briefly when Sophy worked for a friend. Sopha is scared to death of losing her new position.

The truth is, Darrow considers Sophy inappropriate to the position of Effie’s governess due to her behavior with him. Yet he feels responsible for her due to his behavior with her. This is the original substance of his dilemma – when he finds out that Sophy is engaged to Owen the plot thickens.

At the heart and soul of all this is the various degrees of snobbery to be found in the Americans in France. Only Owen is not so encumbered but he’s in love, and possibly Sophy, and she wants to improve her station. Givré means “frosty,” for what it’s worth and the characters are frequently called by their full names – Miss Viner, Mr Darrow, and of course, Madame de Chantelle. Owen and Effie Leath are called by their first names, I’m thinking it’s to emphasize their youth. Anna is also usually called Anna instead of Mrs Leath.

The whole thing feels the influence of Henry James with a lot of thinking going on to establish solid, realistic characters as well as the “Americans in Europe” theme. There is a very formal feel to everything from manners to language. The writing is overdone for our age and I had to use the dictionary more than a couple times. The punctuation is heavy but not as cumbersome as Dickens, just precise with lots of colons, semi-colons and commas with specific thoughts in quotations.

Interesting to note also how much time Wharton spends describing the landscaping and interior of the chateau; her first book, “The Decoration of Houses” (1897), is a classic in the field.

Also, fwiw, The Reef was first published in 1912, while Wharton was having such troubles with her husband whom she divorced the following year. She probably wrote it while in Europe, possibly France, where she lived most of the time after 1911. Teddy Wharton was involved in serial adultery among other irregular activities and I suspect his attitude may not have been too different from Gordon Darrow in the novel while it would seem Edith might know the part of Anna all too well. I would not go so far as to call the story autobiographical.

Edith Wharton and the politics of race:

Wharton and Proust ?
and Joyce?

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The Everything Store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
by Brad Stone
2013/ 373 pages
rating 9 (possibly due to interest) / nonfiction – business

I would never make much of a business person, but I love the books – they’re like reading adventure tales to me. (I’d never make much of an adventuress, either.) And because I was so interested, or maybe Stone is a really good writer, it took longer to finish because I was reading, occasionally rereading, every single word, And I was sad when I finished – no more book?

Stone gives us the mesmerizing story of how the brilliant and intensely competitive Jeff Bezos created, developed and now manages Amazon.com -as in the eponymous title. Being a long time and heavy user of Amazon for books, and as a reader of good business/economics articles and books, I was understandably interested from the gate.

Bezos is portrayed as both hero and villain here (at least that’s my take) and it takes folks like that to forge businesses like Amazon (or Microsoft, Apple, Intel, EBay, Google, etc) and there are vey few of them around. Their exploits make for good reading, though.

The basic story is fairly well known. Bezos, a finance strategist on Wall Street, and his wife took their savings, borrowed a car and drove across country to Seattle to start a bookstore online. Bezos was a voracious reader but he wanted a lot more than a bookstore, and there’s a lot more to that story.

Even Amazon was basically up and running, there were hurdles including skepticism on the part of the brick-and-mortar community as well as business analysts. This is to say nothing of the logistics, process and systems issues, finance troubles and, of course, the personality, frugal to the point of almost miserly, breathtakingly creative, perfectionist and temperamental, of the big boss himself who was/is driven almost entirely by keeping the customers happy.

And Bezos’ big and long-range competitive thinking got him into plenty of trouble with both employees and competitors, but very rarely the customers. All this makes for more good reading.

The end question, food for thought, is Amazon primarily a missionary organization or a mercenary one? Is the goal really customer satisfaction, or is it the almighty buck? – Stone says both – the book shows both. When an entrepreneur starts out he either wants to bring a great product to the people, or he simply wants to make some bucks. I think that Amazon is about as missionary as a for-profit company can get, but the point is winning and the power which will accrue. Bezos just wanted to get his own WalMart online – he didn’t love books all that much, and he wasn’t in it for the money. It was all about the challenge, and catching the customer was the m.o. That’s my take snyway.

Stone has a very engaging and sometimes humorous style which moves the story along at a nice clip. He did an extraordinary amount of research and it’s used well.

Interview with Brad Stone from Al Jazeera:


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10% Happier

10% Happier:
How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story
by Dan Harris
2014 / 237 pages
rating 8 / nonfiction: self-help

Part memoir, part expose of self-help gurus and part genuine, personal advise, self-help book, 10% Happier is a fun read by top journalist with solid background in the field of religion reporting. I am familiar with some meditation techniques having practiced many years ago, but this book was recommended by a friend and it sounded interesting. By happenstance it also got me re-interested in meditation itself.

After an on-camera panic attack in 2004 Harris sought psychiatric help and then found himself reporting on religion for ABC News.

Your demons may have been ejected from the building, but they’re out there in the parking lot doing push-ups.” p 52

This is the well told, often quite funny, story of what he found including critiques, exposes and recommendations re some of the most prominent self-help gurus on the market, Ted Haggard, Eckart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Joe Vitale, James Arthur Ray, Mark Epstein, as well as some atheists.

But the bulk of the book is directed at the ideas and practice of mindfulness and meditation as Harris studied and practiced (and fought with) them. After practicing the very basic techniques in his daily life For several months, Harris attended a 10-day silent seminar which almost undid him, but eventually lifted him into an area of being, as he describes it, 10% happier.

But still he had challenges, mostly work related. His last challenge, the one which had plagued him from the beginning, was related to a discussion from his childhood: “the price of security vs the wisdom of insecurity” became Buddhist principles vs ambition and trying to find a balance. And Harris continues to work on “mindfulness, happiness, and not being a jerk” because those are the skills of living.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Buddhist meditation at a beginner level. It got me re-started on meditation and mindfulness as well as looking at the books and authors which influenced Harris.

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The White Hotel

The Whote Hotel
by D.M. Thomas
1981/274 pages
rating ? / 20th century fiction

Totally pandering and gratuitous in every sense but bolstered by the use of Freud. The narrative in general is a very stylish, literary type production. After the first Freud letters comes an erotic poem apparently by a nympho. Then new section, but possibly same woman, anonymous sex on a train and a fantastical hugely symbolic excursion through a “white hotel.”

I don’t even care to bother with the story (stories) of “Anna,” they are way too convoluted and problematical from a narrator who is unreliable from the start. It just reads like a “How Freudian can you get?” symbolically speaking.

Ah well … keep reading … it comes together in the end, makes a powerful statement and worth the read (if you can make it through the preliminaries).

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