Monday, August 29, 2016

Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets, an Oral History / Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich, 470 pp.

I struggle to begin a post about a book so unusual, eye-opening, moving, enlightening and even entertaining that I know I won't do it justice. Alexievich has spent decades recording lengthy conversations of ordinary former Soviets: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Tajiks, and Armenians, among others. Through the voices of a huge array of people representing all walks of the post-Soviet experience, the reader is taken inside the fall of Communism in a new way. The west experienced the collapse of the USSR with almost unalloyed jubilation; the picture looks different from the point of view of many ordinary Russians for whom the Revolution has ranged from disappointing to terrifying. I especially appreciated the thoughts of those who seemed to have had real love for the Soviet ideal. These speakers will concede the excesses of Stalinism but affirm that the notion of working for society as a whole rather than oneself alone had meaning for them, and that they are unmoored by the excesses, vulgarity, violence, and indifference of the capitalist 'freedom' they now enjoy.

Alexievich's technique is amazing. She allows her subjects to speak without filter and without seeming to insert herself into the process. The beauty lies in the choice and juxtaposition of subjects, and what I assume must be an amazing sympathetic quality, so intense is the material she's drawn from these people.

Super Extra Grande

Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated by David Frye, 156 pages

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is an extreme version of a large animal vet. Set in a distant future in which Latin Americans pioneered quick space travel (go across the galaxy in a matter of hours!), Super Extra Grande tells of Dr. Sangan's escapades with the tsunami (an alien whale-like creature that's easier measured in kilometers than feet or inches) and the laketon, a single-celled organism that is often hundreds of kilometers in diameter. Both of these tales focus on the doctor, who is larger than life himself, being eaten and expelled by these creatures. And along the way, he attempts to help avert a political catastrophe among the galaxy's seven intelligent races.

It's an interesting story, and the parts where Dr. Sangan is navigating through these huge beasts are scientifically compelling, similar in style to The Martian. However... there are two major stumbling blocks for me. First, the recognized human language is Spanglish, which is left as-is in the text. For someone with only 7th-grade Spanish under my belt, it was not exactly easy to follow. Second, Dr. Sangan (and, I'm suspecting, Yoss) veers toward misogyny WAY too much. And seems really obsessed with the reader knowing the doctor's sexual tendencies, despite the total lack of sex in the book. That gave me the creeps WAY more than the detailed descriptions of the tsunami's digestive tract. Not really sure I can recommend this one.


Agatha: the real life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Gillaume Lebeau & Alexandre Franc  119 pp.

After reading the reviews from Christa and Kara I had to read this one. I read all of Agatha Christie's mysteries when in my teens & twenties. I knew some things about her "real" life including her mysterious disappearance, her marriage to an archaeologist, and learning about poisons during the war (as did P.D. James) but not much other than that. Martinette, et al present her life as a graphic novel and include appearances by her most famous investigators, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy & Tuppence. This was a fun, interesting and enjoyable book.

Cook it in cast iron

Cook it in cast iron: kitchen-tested recipes for the one pan that does it all / America's test kitchen editors 293 pgs.

I've had this book checked out for WEEKS because everything in here is so good. I did enjoy learning about how great cast iron is for keeping the heat and improving with age.  The photos and tips for each recipe are great for those of us with less kitchen confidence.  If you are looking for everything from meat main dishes to breads and desserts, take a look at this wonderful cookbook.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, 759 pages

Nearly a year after starting the project, I've finished reading the Harry Potter series to my son. There's not really much to be said about Book 7 in and of itself, except that it wraps up Harry's story beautifully, and the emotions and twists and turns are as vivid as they were the first time I read them. This won't be the last time I read this series, not by a long shot.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston  219 pp.

This was the last of the "Summer of Hurston" books and a re-read for me although it had been so long I had forgotten most of it. I listened to the audio book version read/performed by Ruby Dee and it was excellent. From the opening, the feeling for me is that not only were the characters "watching God", they were busy watching each other and passing judgement of them. The main character, Janie, goes through a life with three totally different husbands. The first, Logan, was the safe provider chosen by Janie's grandmother to keep her out of trouble. The second, Joe Starks, is a go-getter, determined to turn the all black communtiy of Eatonville, Florida into a prosperous town with himself running it. The third, Tea Cake, is the love match with a younger man, a gambler and grifter who sweeps her off her feet and makes her feel real love for the first time. Janie is on the receiving end of treatment by the first two that confines her to "her place" and keeps her from living as she would like. Tea Cake provides her with a freedom to be herself. The ending mixes tragedy with Janie's triumph over bowing to the opinions of others. I enjoyed this book and the discussions that went with it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The underground railroad

The underground railroad / Colson Whitehead 306 pgs.

This is the story of Cora, a slave on a southern plantation. Her life is tough but when the plantation is inherited by the brother of the previous owner, things are only going to get worse.  Caesar is new on the plantation from Virginia.  He decides to escape and believes Cora go with him and be good luck.  Cora's mother Mabel is the only slave to leave and never return.  Thus begins the travels and tribulations of a runaway slave whose journey begins and ends on the underground railroad. She ends up a few places and is several times captured by a slave hunter.

The story is shocking and violent. There are some portions that are set in a different time, giving the story a fantasy vibe.

I listened to the audio version of this book that is read by the incomparable Bhani Turpin.

Before the fall

Before the fall / Noah Hawley 391 pgs.

One foggy night, a private jet drops from the air and into the ocean.  Two survivors make it to shore, Scott, a painter who had hitched a ride and JJ, the four year old son of a rich and powerful media mogul.  How does life change for the survivors? and how do each of the passengers stories intersect to end up on the doomed flight?  Hawley masterfully tells each back story and continues with the days after the flight when there are more questions than answers until answers reveal themselves.

This book was very difficult to put down and has become of my favorites of the year.

Sex object

Sex object / Jessica Valenti 204 pgs.

Jessica Valenti's fearless memoir tackles lots of subjects, sexism, harassment, drug abuse, sexual awakening, and just growing up with "issues" like dealing with anxiety.  The stories of being harassed by men beginning at a very young age are slightly shocking.  At age 12, a man on the subway rubbed against her and left his mark all over the back of her jeans.  The men who regularly expose themselves, the high school teacher who gave her a good grade after skipping weeks of class in exchange for a hug, the casual boyfriends who either stalked her or spread extreme rumors about her all fit into a story of how acceptable it is to treat women poorly.  Valenti's daughter is born extremely prematurely after a bad case of preeclampsia.  Following the birth she is unable to eat and loses a lot of weight which brings tons of complements about how good she looks as her hair is falling out due to malnutrition. The most eye opening is the end notes in which she includes comments emailed to her, left on her blog or sent via social media.  Reading these will make you wonder about the state of the world...and not in a good way.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from and Uncertain Science

The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from and Uncertain Science by Siddhartha Mukherjee, 70 pages.
Originally a TED talk, Mukherjee, the author of the award-winning Emperor of All Maladies and the recent The Gene, explores what he has learned about medicine and  how the changes in technology and philosophy have not eliminated mistakes and biases, but shifted them. A really great, but brief work from a wonderful writer.