Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time / Beth Moon 109p.

A gorgeous collection of photos of the world's oldest trees, some twisted, some bizarre, all of them magnificent.  Moon has traveled the world collecting these pictures; I now would like to become a tree tourist myself.  It would be worth a long trek to see some of these beauties, don't you think?

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

Moral ambiguity is a feature in most of McEwan’s writing and this new novel is no exception.  Fiona Maye is a High Court judge specializing in family disputes – divorce, child custody and the like.  She has recently presided over a sensational judgment involving conjoined twins and has had to make, as she often does, a judgment of Solomon.  Despite dealing daily with children’s problems, she has somehow neglected to have any of her own until it is out of the question – not a conscious decision, but irrevocable.  Her husband has just told her he is going to have an affair.  As she struggles with this shocking announcement after 30 years of a happy marriage, she is called into court quickly decide whether an almost-18-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is competent to make his own decision to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion.  When she visits his hospital bedside, she is taken with his maturity and beauty.  Does she come too involved to make an impartial decision, and how will this decision ultimately turn out.  Much to think about and discuss in this short book.  231 pp.

The aviator’s wife, by Melanie Benjamin

The aviator in question is our own "Spirit of St. Louis" Charles Lindbergh.  His wife, of course, is Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who became a bestselling author in her own right.  Most of us know the bare bones of the story – Lucky Lindy’s triumphal return from his solo flight across the ocean; the kidnapping and death of his and Anne’s first-born son at 18 months; his isolationist beliefs and adulation of Hitler prior to World War II, which soured many on their hero; and the sad revelations after his death that he had three, yes three, other families tucked away in Europe and seven children in addition the five he had with his wife Anne.  This novel, told from Anne’s viewpoint, reveals much more and with more nuance than the above.  Anne was more than just his wife and an author, and very much his “co-pilot” in all senses.  How they grew apart as a couple is well explained. A page-turner and good historical fiction which led me to a greater understanding of their marriage and their impact on the early twentieth century’s imagination.  434 pp.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) / Christian Rudder 300 p.

Thought Gone Girl was a page-turner?  Try Dataclysm!  Truly, I couldn't turn pages fast enough.   Rudder is a mathematician and a co-founder of  dating site OKCupid, and he has a spin on our data that I hadn't heard before: while we're losing privacy every time we click, we're also assembling the first-ever social history that isn't the story of  kings and presidents.  Our Facebook habits, our Tweets, our dating matches are the most democratic means possible to glean what all of us really feel about race, gender, and politics.  Because our online habits are more truthful than what we say about ourselves on surveys (or to our friends, co-workers, and even family members), and because the sheer volume of data is so massive, we can draw conclusions about ourselves at moments in time that are sort of, well, accurate.

To prove his point, Rudder starts with the obvious: a woman's sexual attractiveness to men begins to decline after her 21st birthday (tell us something we don't know, right ladies?).  But by slicing data from OKCupid, Reddit, Craigslist and Google, among others, he shows us who we are in ways that astonish.  Read Dataclysm: Rudder would tell you that we're all the authors of this story.

You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: the Stories of Elizabeth Taylor / 428 pp.

What a thrill to find this among our new books: an esteemed English novelist and short-story writer from mid-twentieth century whose work has been overlooked in the U.S. in recent years.  (And no, she was never married to Richard Burton; that was another Elizabeth T.)  These stories, written between 1950 and 1975 and many published first in The New Yorker, are, to this reader, fantastic.  They are 'small' stories set in middle-class homes in suburban England, but Taylor's powers of observation are tremendous.  Many critics describe her claustrophobic marriages dark and twisted; I found her descriptions rather compassionate instead.  Consider this description, from Sisters: "...the massive, mottled flesh beneath, creased, as it must be, from its rigid confinement, or the suspender imprints at the top of her tapering legs.  Her navel would be full of talcum powder."  It sounds cruel, but as the story plays out, it's clear that Taylor is beyond mere mockery.  Brilliant and subtle, Elizabeth Taylor gets my vote!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien  200 pp.

I had a tough time getting into this novel at first and it's a tough one to explain/review since I'm pretty sure I didn't quite "get" all of it.  In rural Ireland, the narrator has committed robbery and murder with an accomplice. Then he encounters the odd policemen who at first seem inexplicably obsessed with bicycles. He is to be sent to the gallows without a trial but they have to be built first. Interspersed through the story are the theories of a scientist/philosopher De Selby who believes the earth is sausage-shaped instead of round.  Atomic theory, bicycles and the existence of eternity in a house down the road all play a part in this convoluted tale. The ending is surprising...or not.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Tigerman: a novel by Nick Harkaway 339 pgs.

I was a little slow getting into this book but I'm glad I stuck with it. Lester Ferris is a good soldier who is ready to retire.  He gets sent to the island of Mancreu to serve out the remainder of his time.  It is a lovely island that is so poisoned, the "authorities" have decided to blow it up soon.  People are leaving but there is still a stable population that is waiting for final evacuation.  Lester finds himself drawn to a super smart street kid with a comic book obsession.  He seems himself a father figure and starts thinking about how he and the kid can leave together and start a new life as a family.  In the meantime, Mancreu isn't a paradise.  There is an offshore fleet doing any of a number of crazy and illegal things, the population is close to rioting and the murder of a friend puts Lester on notice.  He and the kid cook up a ridiculous scheme for some revenge and Lester becomes the tigerman.  I won't say anything else to avoid spoilers.  A very interesting concept and a well done adventure for Lester and the reader.

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What's So Funny?: My Hilarious Life

What's So Funny?: My Hilarious Life by Tim Conway  245 pp.

Unless you have never seen a television in your life, you have probably seen Tim Conway perform all kinds of crazy antics, most notably on "The Carol Burnett Show" and (for us old geezers)  as Ensign Parker on "MacHale's Navy." (if you're older than that you might remember him from "The Garry Moore Show" and Steve Allen) In this book Conway talks about his life from the beginning with his somewhat odd parents, on through his school days, and his early work on Cleveland radio stations. Eventually he landed on television in New York and then Hollywood. He created many memorable characters, many of whom were based on people he actually knew like his Romanian mother. In this book he talks about the people he has known and been friends with in Hollywood, his family including his seven children and wife "Sharky" He also includes many anecdotes about silly things he has done both on and off the stage, including his expertise at tormenting Harvey Korman. This is a fun, light read that will have you laughing out loud. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Event in Autumn

An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell  176 pp.

This short novel was originally published in The Netherlands for a special program to encourage reading. It was written in 2004 and only recently translated into English. There are many differences between this book and the PBS "Wallender" episode by the same name. Swedish homicide detective Kurt Wallender is looking for a home in the country where he can live out his approaching retirement. As he looks over a house that looks promising he literally stumbles over a skeletal hand sticking out of the ground. This begins a search for the identity of the dead woman and a fifty year old mystery. After many dead ends the truth is finally revealed. An interesting afterword by the author reveals how Wallender came to be and places this story chronologically before the last novel in the Wallender series.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dancing in the streets

Dancing in the streets: a history of collective joy / Barbara Ehrenreich 320 pgs.

A social history of collective joy, Ehrenreich traces the history of celebrations and collective joy including festivals, feasts, holidays and dancing...really revelry of all types.  The ancient Greeks worshiped Dionysus and today we display similar actions during sporting events.  This book covers the European influence in attempting to stamp out native rituals and celebrations and the church trying to limit "unseemly" practices that seemed a little too joyful.  Ehrenreich always does good work and this book is no exception.

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