Friday, January 19, 2018

You don't have to say you love me

You don't have to say you love me: a memoir / Sherman Alexie, read by the author, 457 pages

Oh boy, this memoir is very revealing, occasionally funny and very hard to get through.  There are so many stories of abuse, pain and suffering, it will make you sad.  Read by the author, the audio book packs a punch.  Alexie's mother passes away and it starts a long journey of grief and wondering.  He and his mother had many difficult moments.  She was a beautiful woman, a native speaker of his tribe's dialect but no a warm maternal figure.  As you read about HER difficult life, when she was young and as a mother providing most of the support for her kids because her husband was an alcoholic who rarely worked, you get an "adult" perspective on things. But Alexie is her son and it was hard growing up wondering if his mother loved him.  That is a difficult burden for any child.  This book ends up not being a love letter from son to mother but a bit of a grievance letter.  Despite all the suffering, things are revealed that give you insight into the author, his mother, his father, and other family members.  The book is powerful, the audio is great.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller  378 pp.

The legend of Achilles and the Trojan War is told from the point of view of his best friend and lover, Petroclus. Achilles, the semi-divine son of the immortal nereid Thetis and Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, lives a life that is never quite his own. Only by claiming Petroclus as his constant companion is Achilles able to cope with being forced into fulfilling a prophecy that will ultimately end in his death. The only time he is truly happy and allowed to be himself is with Petroclus as they are educated by the centaur, Chiron in medicine, archery, music, hunting, and gymnastics. Eventually they are called away to be unwilling participants in the Trojan war, which will ultimately be the end of them both. The author has expanded on the ancient legend by making the relationship of Achilles and Petroclus the centerpiece of the novel while still including the politics and action of the time period. This is an enjoyable take on Classical Greek Legends.

Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, 195 pages

A biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist head out on an expedition into the wilderness. While this may sound like the setup to a particularly nerdy joke, it's not. Instead, it's the incredibly simplified premise of Annihilation, the short, haunting novel that kicks off VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The aforementioned explorers have set out to examine Area X, a mysterious place that has claimed a dozen earlier expeditions, though none of the four women of this expedition know why. Told from the biologist's point of view, the story quickly moves from the scary-because-it's-wilderness to the scary-because-it-may-be-unearthly.

It's a thought-provoking read, and leaves many unanswered questions that may or may not be addressed in the other two parts of this trilogy. I found it a weird book, but one that forces the reader to question what exactly it means to be human. This movie adaptation of this comes out later this year, and I'm fascinated to see how it turns out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Mystery at Lilac Inn

The Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene, 200 pages

In this fourth Nancy Drew book, the young sleuth is swept up in a complicated mystery that includes burglary, identity theft, "haunting," and skin diving. All of these elements to combine a tale that's more than a bit convoluted, and ends with a mad scramble to come up with a conclusion (I was seriously wondering where all these random characters came from when the "big reveal" happened). Consider me underwhelmed.

Saga, volume 8

Saga vol. 8 by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples, 152 pages

Eight volumes in, and there's not much I can say about this story without major spoilers for those who haven't read the first seven other than: YOU SHOULD READ THIS SERIES! (Unless you're a kid. Wouldn't recommend it for kids.) If I want to be nitpicky, this particular volume is a bit too on-the-nose with its politics, which could have been handled much more elegantly. However, the story's still good and, as always, Fiona Staples' artwork is phenomenal.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Offspring, by Jonathan Strong



This 1995 short novel is by a favorite author of a friend of mine, who knows the writer through university connections.  I would like to say I found it as good as he evidently did, but I was not as impressed.  Linc and Izzy have been sweethearts since they were twelve and at age twenty moved in together.  One could call them hippies, for want of a better term, although they fetch up in a rather shabby but still suburban home with their three sons.  They have never bothered to get married, to the despair of their parents and siblings.  The eldest son, Obadiah, is approaching his teenage years and he and his close-in-age two brothers, Malachi and Zephaniah, are considered odd by their peers.  They are encouraged by their parents to read instead of participating in sports or getting interested in computers. They spend their after school hours in the basement, digging a tunnel.  Are they trying to escape, or just hide from the unfriendly world?  Or none of the above?  The school psychologist is worried.  Then a rash of vandalism hits their school and the boys come under suspicion.  Okay, but not great, and if you want to read it, you might have to borrow my friend’s copy since it is not widely available.  225 pp.

I can't breathe

I can't breathe: a killing on Bay Street / Matt Taibbi, 322 pages

This book recounts the life and death of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by police using an illegal choke hold for the crime of selling illegal cigarettes.  But this book does not paint Eric as a saint, or as a sinner, but as a man who tried, a man who loved his family and was proud of his kids.  A man who wanted to be a good father and husband but did not always measure up.  At a younger age, he had dealt drugs and served time thus effectively limiting his options before he had a chance to even understand the results of his actions.  He was a funny guy, and had a command of numbers and sports statistics.  He was well liked.  After his death, his daughter Erica became a well-known activist who tried to get justice for her father's death.  This book was published before her tragic death early in 2018.  I wish there was no need for books like this.  Taibbi does a good job of showing the big picture, delving into the legal system, policing and bigger policies that affect all of us but not as tragically as Eric Garner. 

Pale rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, by Laura Spinney



I read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale horse, pale rider, a fictional account of her own near-death from influenza, when I was a teenager.  Since then, I have often wondered why the influenza epidemic of 1918 is barely represented in other literary and artistic creations.  Sweeping around the globe in about a year – and carried back and forth on troop ships towards the end of WWI – it infected one in three people on earth and killed 50 – 100 million people, or 2.5 – 5 % of the population.  World War I “only” killed 20 million soldiers and civilians.  How can this have gone so unnoticed in works of art and the historical document?  This is just one of the many topics that the author takes up in this fascinating and timely book.  Our current flu season is in progress and the flu shot is at most 30% effective on this outbreak of the H3N2 version of the virus, Spinney’s book explains the facts and theories behind how flu viruses mutate and spread, how animal reservoirs of the disease affect human disease, and why different flu seasons seem to disproportionally affect different age groups (it seems that you are most immune to the first flu type you are exposed to regardless of future experiences with the illness, and therefore will always be more resistant to whatever virus your age cohort first ran into).  She points out at the beginning of the book, “When asked what was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century, nobody answers the Spanish flu…. There is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow or Washington DC.  The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively.  Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.”  Well-written as well as informative – recommended.  295 pp.

The beautiful mystery, by Louise Penny



This is the first of this series, number eight, that has no connection to the charming village of Three Pines, nor its amusing cast of eccentric characters.  That said, it is just a good as the previous books, even without vicariously sitting in front of a cozy fire enjoying a cup of hot chocolate.  Oh, but there are chocolate covered wild blueberries….  Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to a remote monastery deep in the Quebec woods.  There a group of 24 monks spend their days working in silence at the tasks that keep their order fed and sheltered and gathering to sing Gregorian chants as the day progresses from Vigils to Compline.  The order, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, is all but unknown to the outside world, including even Rome.  It’s founder fled from various persecutions and established this safe haven centuries ago.  However, a CD of their chants has been released to the world and gone viral, threatening their obscurity, and now murder has intruded – the choirmaster is found dead in the abbot’s private garden.  Working entirely within the confines of the monastery and its orderly days, Gamache finds comfort in the chants, while Beauvoir chafes under the monotony of both the day and the music.  Also, Beauvoir is concealing a secret, he is in a serious relationship with Gamache’s daughter, Annie.  When Gamache’s arch nemesis, Superintendent Francoeur shows up, ostensibly to check on the investigation, things become really interesting.  Up to Penny’s high standard, and a lovely exploration of Gregorian chant as well.  373 pp.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Faith Fox

Faith Fox / Jane Gardam, 375 p.

By the author of the Old Filth trilogy, this was first published in 1996 and was re-issued this year by Europa editions.  The title character, Faith, is a beautiful newborn baby throughout the course of this novel, so her actions are limited to the standard baby's repertoire.  It's the kooky adults in her orbit that make up the story here.  Faith's mother Holly is a cheerful, busy, well-loved force of nature, and her death (on page one) in the delivery room sets in motion a chain of events both moving and very funny.  Faith's father feels a little too busy to deal with her, her grandmother is too traumatized, her uncle too spiritual, her aunt too mysterious, and for a while Faith's fate lies in the hand of the Tibs, a group of Tibetan refugees living at a commune run by her Uncle Jack.  It all sounds dreadful, but in Gardam's telling it is sweet and absorbing.