Sunday, July 5, 2015

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, 349 pages.
This was our April book discussion title, so this post is a little late. But, then there are still some titles from January that need to be blogged about. Our Wednesday night U-City book group had a really good discussion about this title because (as my feeble memory will have me believe) everyone agreed that the writing was beautiful, the characters crisp and lively, and the situations unique utterly believable.
Most of the book, which the author calls an allegory of 9/11, takes place during the course of one day in Manhattan, in August,  1974, as Phillipe Petit walked a tightrope  wire between the Twin Towers.
As the book opens Ciaran and his brother Corrigan have taken different paths out of Ireland, but both have ended up in Manhattan in 1974. Corrigan is now a monk of an indeterminate order, he has followed Christ and gone to live and work among the poor. When Ciaran visits him there, he finds him in the projects, where he has befriended Tillie, Jazzlyn, and the other local prostitutes. Tillie and Jazzlyn and their family story become central to the story as the tale ripples outward, in this beautifully written tale.
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Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room . by Michael Connelly, 388 pages.
The twenty-somethingth Harry Bosch novel finds detective Bosch winding down his career (still) in the Open-Unsolved unit, teamed with a new partner, Lucia Soto. Harry, a man who doesn't trust many people, has to decide whether or not to trust his new young partner as they attempt to solve the case case of a man who was shot nine years ago, but only now succumbed to the wound. There's another case hidden behind the one they're looking at and Harry has to determine how far he can go and keep his job.
There's a lot of familiar ground covered here, but it's still a decent story.
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Friday, July 3, 2015

The Witch of Exmoor / Margaret Drabble 281 pp.

Recently stuck for a while in the Raleigh airport, I was thrilled to find a used bookstore. It was packed with a huge variety of titles, unlike a typical airport shop which offers ten different titles, eight of them by James Patterson. And so I serendipitously picked up this paperback by Drabble, an author of whom I was vaguely aware but had never read. (She is the sister of A.S. Byatt, but apparently they are estranged. At the moment I vote for Margaret.)

Frieda Haxby, a successful author and academic in her mid-sixties, is the Witch. She baffles and angers her three adult children by choosing to spend her later years alone in a mansion on an isolated and wild stretch of coastline. Frieda was at best a mediocre mother, and her children are primarily concerned with her sizable inheritance and whether she will fritter it away in her apparent madness. Much of the narrative concerns these three prosperous families in mid-nineties England, and their individual and collective musings about fate and the power of social class and environment on human development. Yet it's very entertaining, with loads of biting dialogue and very astute social observation, as well as plain good humor. There is mystery as well: who is living in son Daniel's attic? when Frieda disappears from her home, has she been murdered? and what happened to Frieda's sister, dead thirty years earlier? Drabble uses an omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader in a way that could have been gimmicky but that I found delightful. A cynical and sharp tale with just a bit of sweetness at the center.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The folded clock, by Heidi Julavits

The author kept a diary as a child, as many do, and returned to it years later hoping to get insight into what she was like at that time.  She was disappointed.  Most entries began, “Today I….” with a brief notation of a mundane event.  She decided to see if she could do better as an adult – and this is the result.  Each entry begins the same way it did when she was a child, but the dates are non-linear and it skips all around a year’s entries.  The book received great reviews.  I read most of it, put it aside for more anticipated books that showed up on my reserve list (A god in ruins – yay!), and found I could no longer remember a bit of what she had to say.  Perhaps just my aging mind, or perhaps a diary best enjoyed by the author rereading it in her declining years.  I think the fault is mine, however.  223 pp read of 289.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania / Erik Larson 430 pp.

Erik Larson has sold lots of books writing historical nonfiction that reads well, and, especially in the case of The Devil in the White City, juxtaposes disparate people and events to create smart narrative tension. The story of a Chicago serial killer, the World's Fair, and the invention of the Ferris Wheel make for strange and oddly fresh reading.

The Lusitania story unfolds along much more conventional lines and resembles a sort of museum exhibit in print. Perhaps this is why there are no photos; in Larson's 'Sources and Acknowledgements' he details the many physical artifacts from the sinking he was able to examine. Possibly he feels that his text renders our view of them unnecessary. And Dead Wake is certainly enjoyable and enlightening, but given the subject matter I suppose I expected more fireworks. He spends over half the book in the run up to the sinking, introducing us to the captain and many of the passengers, and more intriguing, I think, to U-Boat Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, who launched the fatal torpedo. Eventually this buildup grows too long, though, and the reader just wants Larson and Schwieger to get on with it.

Much more interesting are Larson's hints that Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time of the sinking, hoped for the German destruction of a passenger ship carrying large numbers of Americans, and may have deliberately left the ship with insufficient information and without escort in the hopes that America would be dragged into the war earlier. I wish Larson had explored this further. If it's true, the implications are interesting. Did he also know about Pearl Harbor? Must I now boycott Masterpiece Theatre?

All complaints aside, this was informative and thoughtful reading, and I recommend it highly.

June totals

An image worthy of our soggy June?
Amy 5/1248
Christa 16/4334
Kara 13/2647
Karen 7/1905
Kathleen 1/372
Linda 5/1788

Total 47/12294

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web / E. B. White 187 pgs.

The classic book about a young girl Fern and her terrific pig, Wilbur and Wilbur's best friend Charlotte the spider gets better every reading.  The story of friendship, the circle of life and believing in the possible remains relevant and should be required reading for all.  This is included on the TIME magazine's best Young Adult books of all time.  Certainly one of the greats.

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A god in ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A companion novel to her wonderful Life after life.  Both revolve around World War II as experienced by the British and feature many of the same central characters.  In the first book, Ursula Todd lives and dies many times while experiencing alternative histories, but much of the action of the book takes place during the Blitz.  This new novel follows her brother Teddy’s war as a fighter pilot based in Yorkshire as he makes seventy night bombing raids over Germany, rather miraculously surviving them.  Only 50% did, and the odds of someone who entered the war at the beginning making to the end fall to 10%.  Interspersed with vivid and accurate accounts of these raids and the emotional tensions before and during a bombing run, is the account of his life after the war.  He marries the girl next door, who dies tragically soon, leaving him to raise his resentful young daughter, Viola.  Viola’s life as an adult is a haphazard mix of sixties-style hippie communes, single parenthood raising Sunny (Sun Edward Todd) and Bertie (Moon Roberta Todd), a bad marriage, and a life still full of bitterness at sixty.  Though she becomes a successful author, not much about life, including her 98-year-old dying father, pleases her.  Less unexpected than Life after life, A god in ruins still saves one last big surprise for the end.  I found the character of Viola a bit overdrawn, but loved Teddy, who after surviving the war vows “to be kind,” and his two grandchildren, who manage to come through their own battles with Viola’s indifferent and damaging mothering with their characters intact.  464 pp

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, 323 pages

So that's why there are so many holds on this book! Told from the points of view of three women with intersecting lives, The Girl on the Train revolves around a missing woman whose life is not at all what it seems to outsiders. Hawkins presents us with some thought-provoking depictions of alcoholics, depression, unemployment, and stay-at-home moms, and makes us question our judgments of others, all while creating a thrilling story that ramps up in intensity and keeps us guessing until the last second. A great book, and well worth the wait.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy  228 pp.

Skilly the cat becomes the mouser at the Cheshire Cheese Inn, home to a wonderful cheese made in house and an overpopulation of mice. Also at the inn are an unscrupulous barmaid, an injured Tower of London raven named Maldwyn, the cranky cook and cheesemaker, and Pip, a mouse with incredible talents. Frequent visitors to the inn include Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Skilley has a secret: he doesn't like to catch and eat mice, preferring cheese instead. With the help of Pip he has an agreement not to harm the mice as long as they continue bringing him cheese. Then the mouse hating barmaid brings in Pinch, a mean and vicious cat who is deadly to the mice and has set his sights on Maldwyn. The fate of the raven threatens both the Inn and the British Monarchy. During all of this Dickens struggles with finding the perfect opening sentence for his novel A Tale of Two Cities. (The first line of this book is "He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.")  A surprise visitor and the help of Mr. Dickens brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. This is a fun chapter book and a possible candidate for the Treehouse Book Club.