Monday, June 27, 2016

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald  300 pp.

This book is an unusual combination of memoir, grief, falconry, and author T.H. White. Helen MacDonald, a naturalist and falconer, is devastated when her father dies suddenly. While coping with her grief and other personal crises she takes on the task of using her falconry skills to train a notoriously difficult raptor, a goshawk. She uses training methods learned from other falconers and from the writings of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. White wrote about his ultimately unsuccessful experiences with his bird called Gos and MacDonald comments on him and the errors he had made. Meanwhile she and her bird, Mabel, are having mixed results in training due, in part, to MacDonald's shaky emotional state. I'm having a hard time deciding if I like this book or not. I enjoy reading about and watching birds of prey so the details about the bird were fascinating. The rest...not so much. I give it a mixed review.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, 330 pages

When precocious eighth grader Bee chooses a family trip to Antarctica as a prize for perfect grades, her quirky, agoraphobic mother Bernadette is thrown for a loop. Told in a mostly epistolary form consisting of emails between Bernadette and her Indian online assistant, and between snooty moms at Bee's school, this is a fantastically funny book. I'm glad I bought it, as I intend to read it again whenever I need a laugh.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck

The life-changing magic of not giving a f*ck: how to stop spending time you don't have with people you don't like doing things you don't want to do / Sarah Knight, 208 p.

Yes, this book has the same basic cover design (and trim size!) of Marie Kondo's better-know book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Sarah Knight isn't making fun of that book, though; she talks about Kondo-ing her husband's sock drawer. But rather than discussing how to rid your life of physical things, Knight talks about how to rid yourself of obligations that sap your time, energy and money--obligations that you don't really care about. Her advice is all about how to determine what you actually care about, and how to jettison pretending to care about the other stuff. (She's very clear that you're not allowed to be a jerk about it.) I wish some of her examples of how to handle letting other people you don't care were a little less trivial--I know she's doing it to be funny, but it sort of undercuts her more serious points. Still, an enjoyable and useful book, assuming you don't mind salty language.

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Code Talker

Code talker / Chester Nez, 310 p.

Chester Nez was one of the original 32 Navajo men (he insists that there were 32 men involved, although the official number is always given as 29) who developed an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language for the U.S. military during WWII. Besides the development of the code and his service in the Pacific, he talks about his early childhood on the reservation, government-run boarding school, and his life after wartime.

There's also an extensive index of the code, which I loved reading. Some of the words were straight translations: "until" in English was the word for "until" in Navajo. Others were easy to understand the connection; "vicinity" became "there about," and "village" became "many shelter." My favorites, though, were the terms that mixed concepts--"when" became "weasel hen," "where" became "weasel here," and "will" became "sick weasel"!

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Fire Touched

Fire touched / Patricia Briggs, 342 p.

I like this series (this is book 9) about Mercy Thompson, a car mechanic who's a coyote shapeshifter married to the Alpha of the local werewolf pack. Much of what I enjoy involves the characters' relationships, which are less...dramatic than some urban fantasy books. This one begins with an outstanding action sequence involving a troll on a bridge, but the rest of the book didn't really grab me. Generally when I'm reading a series, some entries will be really memorable and some will be...not filler, exactly, but only an enjoyable visit with characters I like rather than a book that really excites me. For me, Fire Touched falls into that second category.

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Chaos Choreography

Chaos choreography / Seanan McGuire, 368 p.

The fifth book in this fun urban fantasy series switches back to Verity Price as the viewpoint character. She's come to terms with giving up her dream to be a professional ballroom dancer in order to focus on the family business (cryptozoology)...but then the reality show she competed on a few years previously, Dance or Die, entices her with a reunion show, and one last time to dance. She has to juggle dancing, her fellow contestants' egos and secrets (some of the other dancers are cryptids)--and a murder investigation, as eliminated contestants begin dying.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

The portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

Veblen, a thirty-year-old free-spirited young woman, is named after that Veblen, as in Thorstein, the economist who wrote The theory of the leisure class.  She is also an amateur scholar of his works.  She lives in a run-down cottage in an un-gentrified section of Palo Alto, translates works from Norwegian, and is employed in low-level jobs, most recently as an assistant in a neurology lab at Stanford.  When a chance encounter brings her together with neurologist researcher Paul Veerland, the attraction is instantaneous and within three months, they are planning their wedding.  Paul has invented a tool that looks like a significant advance in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries and is excited that the Defense Department and a major pharmaceutical company are eager to test and acquire it. Both Paul and Veblen come from “challenging” families.  In her case, her mother is a self-involved hypochondriac who really does know more about her supposed illnesses than the doctors – she’s married to a long-suffering second husband, and Veblen’s father is incarcerated in a mental institution.  Paul has an older “special needs” brother, prone to torturing his younger sibling, and his parents are aging hippies.  He avoids his family whenever he can.  But marriage plans inevitably bring the families together.  And then there’s the situation with the squirrel that lives in her attic and is, for Veblen, a totemic spirit.  A fun and thoughtful book.  428 pp.

Mothering Sunday: A romance, by Graham Swift

One of those rare, short, deceptively simple books that resonate in so many ways.  It is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Chesil Beach. As the book opens, two young lovers are having a final fling in his bedroom on “Mothering Sunday,” when the respective family members and their servants are all absent from two grand houses.  The aristocrats are enjoying lunch out and planning for the marriage in two weeks’ time of Paul Sheringham to Emma Hobdey.  The servants have dispersed to visit their mothers on this English holiday in March 1924.  But Paul is in the arms of Jane Fairchild, an orphan with no mother to visit and a maid at the other grand house.  They’ve been lovers for seven years, since just after the end of World War I, which has taken the other young sons from both houses.  It is not only the last time they will be together, but the first time Jane has actually been in his house, their trysts having taken place in fields and barns. Is this the “romance” in the title?  Not entirely, as the book turns in a completely other direction precisely at the half-way point of the novel.  It more in the definition of “romance” as “a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.”  I won’t give any more away.  Loved it.  But then Graham Swift is himself a marvelous writer.  177 pp.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Karen Memory

Karen Memory / Elizabeth Bear, 350 p.

Karen Memery is an orphaned young woman who works as a whore. She and her employer are dragged into trouble when Karen offers a fugitive girl (Priya) sanctuary from her owner, and things get worse when the body of a murdered prostitute is dumped near Karen's place of employment. Karen works with some of the other girls in her house and U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to catch the murderer, keep the villainous Peter Battle from winning the mayoral election with his mind-control device (and blackmail), and save Priya's sister from Battle's clutches. The action near the end of the books really ramps up, setting a breath-taking pace.

Karen's voice is distinctive and fun. I love how matter-of-fact she is about her job; it's what she does, not who she is. Plus how could I not love the steam-powered full-body sewing machine.  :)

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Cartoons for victory

Cartoons for victory / Warren Bernard, 256 p.

A compilation of American newspaper strips, ads, comic book covers, and single-panel cartoons that were published during WWII. Each section has commentary by Bernard giving context on particular topics: what a victory garden was, how scrap metal recycling worked, etc. I personally would have like more text, but the focus of the books is clearly the cartoons, and I can't really argue with that. The large trim size is especially nice when the art is a Sunday cartoon strip, as the reproduction is large and easy to read.

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