Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Gross Anatomy

Gross Anatomy: dispatches from the front (and back) / Mara Altman, 312 pgs.

Altman has had issues with her body and decided to learn more about it.  Topics include body hair, lice, boobs, sweat and the functions of the anus.  Yes, many things you probably wonder about yourself.  Altman's style is irreverent but also serious at times.  She is open to some "new age" ideas about dealing with body issues and is working towards better acceptance of her own body.  I enjoyed her style and learned a few things.  It's fine to say over and over "it's natural" or "it's normal" but accepting that for yourself is a bigger step.

Two Girls Down

Two Girls Down / Luisa Luna, 304 pages.

Single mom Jamie runs into a shopping center to get a birthday gift for a party she is taking her girls to.  Ten year old Kylie and eight year old Bailey are gone when she returns.  Soon bounty hunter Alice Vega is called in from California.  Local police are understaffed and overwhelmed by the case but reject assistance.  Alice, however, is working for the family and has a knack for finding missing kids.  Alice teams up with local PI Max Caplan.  He knows the area and is a former cop.  Max is a divorced dad to sixteen year old Nell, a significant force in her own right.  The action is good, the characters are great and the writing well done.  In the end, the story strips you of any hope for the goodness of (some) people.  It seems fairly realistic as far as the motivations of the perpetrators even if the actions of a couple of the characters seem a little fantastic.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Unlocked

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome by John Scalzi, 143 pages

A companion to his novels Lock In and Head On, Unlocked gives the backstory of Haden's syndrome, the debilitating disease that forms the center of those two novels, through people who researched the disease; the people who live with Haden's; politicians who funded the moonshot effort to cure it; and the journalists who covered it.

Considering this is a fictitious disease, it's a well-structured story, as any documentary or oral history would be, and it answers a lot of questions that the Orcs & Aliens book group brought up during our discussion last September, showing just how much Scalzi has thought out this disease. As fantastic as this novella is, I would definitely recommend reading Lock In first.

The Cassandra

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields, 281 pages

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a seer whose prophecies were never believed. During World War II, Mildred Groves is in that same situation, treated horribly by her mother and sister; pitied as a sleepwalking simpleton by the other women at the Hanford research center (the scientific research base where she takes shorthand for a military physicist); and disregarded by the men of Hanford, who only see her curves. Yet Mildred is tormented by her prophetic dreams, which warn of the looming destruction that will be caused by the dangerous products being created at Hanford.

Based on a real research compound on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, The Cassandra presents a sobering and enlightening look at the inhumanity of war, the suppression of women's voices, and the environmental impacts of ignorance in the face of "progress." This was a fascinating glimpse into history, and at the same time, has powerful resonances in modern day. An excellent book.

*This is an advanced reading copy. The book comes out next month.

My Sister the Serial Killer

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite  226 pp.

This book has been making the rounds of the library and has been blogged here and here. This story of a pair of Nigerian sisters is unusual and intriguing. Just how far should a sister go to protect her irresponsible younger sibling? Is cleaning up and disposing of the body after she kills someone enough? What if it happens more than once? What if the man you want for yourself may be the next victim? And should a book about this be so enjoyable? I will be on the lookout for more from this new, young author.

Up Jumps the Devil

Up Jumps the Devil by Michael Poore  360 pp.

John Scratch aka the Devil has lived for thousands of years and in the U.S. for the past few hundred. He has involved himself in historical events, including assisting George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Later he finds himself managing a rock band while driving around the country in the Kennedy Assassination limo. The love of his life has returned to heaven and he wants her back. He keeps assisting in "improvements" to civilization in hopes of bringing her back. In the mean time he falls for Memory, the amnesiac lead singer of the band. John also keeps getting killed (unsuccessfully) but as he ages it takes longer to come back from his injuries. The flashbacks and characters are interesting and it is an amusing story, for the most part. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Death in Connecticut

Death in Connecticut by David Linzee (1977) 245 pages

I wanted to read an early book by this local author, but I did not find the main character in Death in Connecticut sympathetic. Arthur Jr. had been floating about the country, a hold-out from Vietnam protests/campus office takeovers. When his father did not rush in to save him from his own judgement, and when his girlfriend didn't drop what she was doing to validate him, he found himself in a downward spiral until we meet him on a bus three years later, with no food, no clean clothes, but near his father's law office.

His father gives Arthur Jr. access to his apartment, where Arthur finds his father's guns and decides to kill himself. By chance, out in the country where he was going to kill himself, he sees his ex-girlfriend's car parked and stops what appears to be a theft from the car. From here, the confusion grows as he thinks it's possible that drugs are in the package: His ex works for his father's firm; do they deal in drugs? He finds a new zest for life in trying to take his father down. Meanwhile, some shady characters are paying him ominous visits. The action ramps up from there!

The library book, by Susan Orlean

A love letter to public libraries. The red and gold book cover, resembling one of the fancier types of rebinding popular in the 1960s; the faux book pocket and date due card; and the Dewey Decimal headings at the beginning of each chapter are very clever.  The main topic of the book is the serious fire at the headquarters of the Los Angeles library system on April 28, 1986.  Why, I wondered, was I not familiar with this major library event that raged for seven hours, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000, and did extreme damage to the historic building?  Well, the fire shares this date with the Chernobyl disaster, when the world waited to see just how widespread this nuclear catastrophe would become.  Orlean charts the growth of the city of Los Angeles, the development of its library system, the building of its unique main library, and introduces all of the directors who have guided it with greater or lesser effectiveness.  She explores the biography of Harry Peak, a gay pathological liar, wannabe actor, and troubled soul, who may or may not have set the fire intentionally that day. We learn about the "science" of arson investigation.  She ropes in library history, the changing place of libraries in their communities, and the advance of technology, including a long chapter about OverDrive which seemed rather extraneous,  She's obviously a big fan of public libraries.  Perhaps I just know too much about libraries, but I found the book a bit of a slog.  Our oddball patrons are just as weird, if not weirder, than any that hang out in LA.  Maybe a bit less West-Coast-colorful overall, but just as strange.  However, readers who are patrons of libraries, not librarians, will find much interesting information here.  Makes our profession and those that practice it look very good – but we knew that!  313 pp.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

All Systems Red

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 152 pages

An android (with some organic parts) that calls itself Murderbot has been rented out as the security detail for a small surveying expedition on a far-off planet. Unbeknownst to the humans in the expedition, Murderbot has hacked its own governing module, allowing it to do as it pleases. For the most part, this means doing its job as normal but watching soap operas in the background. But when communications with a second surveying crew go dark, Murderbot's abilities become apparent to the crew.

This is the first in four novellas that make up the Murderbot Diaries, and while I'm not quite as taken with the book as all of the praise and accolades suggest I should be, I am intrigued by the main character's personality. There are elements of the autism spectrum that pop up in it, and I very much look forward to discussing this on Monday with the Orcs & Aliens book group.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

At the End of the Century

At the End of the Century: the Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 439 p.

Jhabvala is one of my all-time favorite writers.  As a young person, she was a refugee from Eastern Europe to England, where she later met and married her husband, an Indian architect.  She spent most of her life in Delhi, but in later years also lived in New York, and most of  her fiction is set in one of these two locales.  After her death in 2013 her children collected this volume of some of her most important stories, and they reflect her frequent themes of gurus and charismatics who hold others in thrall, to everyone's detriment.  All are told with the beautifully precise observation of someone who spent her life as an outsider.  The collection contained many stories I had read previously, but there were a few that were originally published in The New Yorker that I had missed.  As always, these are a pleasure.