Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Possibility of Violence / D.A. Mishani 280 pp.

The second in a series following 2013's The Missing File and featuring Detective Avraham Avraham, or Avi.  This case concerns a fake suitcase bomb left outside a Tel Aviv daycare.  As in the first novel, much of the action concerns Avi coming to understand the psychology of the people involved in this case rather than frantic action, while in the background he deals with a new European girlfriend and difficulties with his police mentor and friend.  Still enjoyable and a nice birds-eye view of day-to-day Israeli life.

Dinner: the Playbook: a 30-day plan for mastering the art of the family meal / Jenny Rosenstrach 219 pp.

Rosenstrach wants you to make dinner.  Like, every night.  But she's funny and witty without being sickening, so it's OK.  She presents 30 days of relatively simple meal plans with recipes, but the bulk of the book is about how to change your routines and mindset to make that happen.  Mostly she reminds you of things you already know, such as how much simpler you can make your week by roasting and shredding a couple of pounds of chicken breast on Sunday.  Or that a hungry house at 6pm is a little less terrifying if you've taken 15 minutes to prep in the morning.  The recipes are easy to follow and those I've tried were tasty, especially the crock pot spareribs and the fabulous and truly easy chicken noodle soup.

The negatives: Rosenstrach refers to recipes that she's published in other books - who needs that when you're in a hurry?  And the index is quite feeble.  I knew there was a recipe for spareribs in there but couldn't find it under pork, ribs, or spareribs.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant / Zachary Lazar 249 pp.

A fascinating novel that I can't quite categorize.  Hannah is an American journalist in Israel investigating the murder of a poet.  She is estranged from her father, as the poet was estranged from his son.  In a way I can't explain, this is all connected to the story of  gangster Meyer Lansky who, when faced with prosecution in the US, spent time in Israel before being re-patriated.  (He too had strained relations with his son, severely disabled from birth.)  Another character is a Holocaust survivor who might have been Lansky's mistress, and who surfaces in New York during Hannah's childhood.  Nominally this is the story of the poet's murder, but it's written as almost a collage of parent/child images with a strong echoes of the Abraham and Isaac story.  The writing is graceful and strange without feeling overly 'experimental.'  Appreciated if not quite understood.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members / Julie Schumacher 180 pg.

This book is priceless!  An professor in an unloved field writes reams of LORs (letters of recommendation) and other letters to his boss, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend, his various enemies in the literary world (ok, not enemies, just people who hate him).  They all have one thing in common, they are brutally honest and mostly hilarious.  I'm not sure that you need to have much experience in academia to appreciate this book.  Jason Fitger is a bit of a malcontent but there are some good reasons for this.  His department is crumbling, his boss is an interloper from sociology, his building is being renovated around him.  His ex-wife & ex-girlfriend are in touch behind his back. He doesn't have time to write pleasantries in the many LORs he is requested to write, somehow they all end up to be about him and the source of his disgruntled attitude.

A great book for anyone that has dissatisfaction in their life or has ever attended or worked at an institute of higher learning.  Hmmm, that is probably everybody.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

I Am Spartacus!

I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas  210 pp.

In 1959 Hollywood was still cowering under the "Red Scare" brought about by the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kirk Douglas wanted to make a film about the Roman slave, Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast, one of the authors who went to prison rather than bow to HUAC. Douglas also wanted the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, to write the screenplay. Trumbo had written screenplays for other films under pseudonyms and agreed to do it for this one. By the end of nearly two years of work on the picture, with multiple delays, cost overruns and fights with the censors, Douglas decided that Trumbo's name would be in the credits much to the dismay of Universal Pictures.  It's a fascinating story in Douglas' own words that inspired me to seek out the restored version of the film which has the scenes removed by the censors. I have vague memories (I was 2) going to see the film at one of the big theaters (maybe one of the Loew's) because it's the only time I remember going to the movies as a family that wasn't a drive-in. The family story is that I cried during the opening credits when the statues crumble but was well behaved through the rest of it.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein  291 pp.

This chapter book is in the running to be a selection for my kids' book club. It's a fun story that anyone working in a library would enjoy reading. Not only is Mr. Lemoncello's library an amazing place, there are lots of references to a wide variety of books, and some very intelligent kids playing a challenging game. Twelve children in the small town of Alexandriaville, Ohio are chosen to be part of a lock-in at the town's brand new library. The town's original library closed many years earlier. The book is an homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Before the kids can leave the library they must follow clues to figure out how to escape from the building. The main character, Kyle, is a fan of all types of games and just an all round good kid who idolizes master games maker, Luigi Lemoncello.  Of course, there's  Kyle's nemesis, a pretentious rich kid named Charles Chillington who will do anything to win. This is a fun one.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr 531 pp.

I had a long wait for this one, and it was well worth it.  This lovely novel is set in the heart of European World War II, but telescopes that massive backdrop into the stories of two young people, the Parisian teenager Marie Laure, blind since age 6, and Werner, an orphan in a coal-mining village in Germany.  Werner is a kind of prodigy of electronics, assembling and repairing radios throughout his village.   Meanwhile Marie Laure learns to navigate the streets of Paris by memorizing wooden models crafted by her adoring father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History.  The long winding plot bounces back and forth between the years leading up to the war and an intense few days in August 1944 during the bombing of St Malo on France's west coast.

Mr Doerr's writing is almost too good for the plot, dense and clever as it is, even featuring a mysterious diamond shrouded in a dangerous legend.  He, or his editors, may have had their hopes set on a Hollywood deal (and they may get one), but this story is more than a fast-paced tearjerker.  It is a beautiful look at what it means to see, and to hear, and to live a good life.

Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies / Leanne Shapton 320 pgs.

Leanne Shapton writes about swimming from her serious competitive days when she was in the running a the Olympic trials but did not make the team to her lifelong pursuit of swimming as a form of exercise, a time for meditation and a source of relaxation.  This is sort of a memoir of swimming around the world, what it means to be weightless in the water, powerful in the pool, feeling lost in open water. Swimming has been an important part of the author's life almost forever.  Like other athlete's stories that I've read, she touches on but does not overwhelm with the motivation to train, the need to compete and win through the pain.  The dedication to sport takes away many opportunities for other activities.  There is a price to being good and getting better and it isn't easy to know when to move on with your life. 

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The vacationers, by Emma Straub



Set in a villa on Mallorca, this is a typical beach read.  Although the Posts, Jim and Franny, son Bobby and daughter Sylvia, all have problems, as do their friends Charles and Lawrence, a married couple who are anxiously waiting to hear if they will be chosen to adopt a baby, it is a little hard to feel too sorry for any of them given where they are able to go to try to escape their troubles.  The trip was meant to be a 35th anniversary celebration for the Posts.  However, since the vacation was planned, Jim has been fired from his job as an editor of an upscale magazine after a brief fling with an intern; Franny finds this impossible to forgive – mostly because of the age of the girl involved, barely older than Sylvia.  Sylvia, headed for Brown University in the fall, has gotten drunk at a party and compromising pictures of her have been shared over social media. Twenty-eight year old Bobby comes with Carmen, his longtime girlfriend who no one really approves of – she’s 40 and a personal trainer.  Somehow, with the application of sunny weather; the introduction of a handsome native speaker who is employed to tutor Sylvia in Spanish and an similarly handsome tennis pro for Franny; and the consumption of a lot of really great sounding tapas, it all comes out right in the end.  As a good beach read should, and it is just that.  Just fun.  292 pp.

Coaltown Jesus

Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge  122 pp.

Fourteen year old Walker prays for God to help his mother who has not stopped crying since Walker's older brother died. Walker also wants to know why God would take his seventeen year old brother when half of the residents in his mom's nursing home are waiting to die. Then Walker finds Jesus standing in his bedroom. This version of Jesus is not a staid, serious deity. He cracks jokes, eats ice cream, and is a little freaked out by a sign on a hardware store advertising "all kinds of nails."  Even though Walker asked for his mom to be helped, he also needs to come to terms with his brother's death. This is brief novel in verse packs a great deal into a few pages. And I was amused by the fact that the nursing home Walker's mom runs in the made up Coaltown, Illinois (20 miles from St. Louis) is called the Bissell House, the same as the historical home a couple blocks from my house.