Saturday, April 18, 2015

Pagans: the End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity / James J. O'Donnell 273 p.

O'Donnell looks at 3rd and 4th century C.E. to examine the transition from paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire.  To the extent possible, he tries to open up the mindset of Roman citizens of the period and the role religion played in their lives.  He shows that the notion of pagans and paganism is actually a Christian construct, meaning that the new religion, in order to define itself, elaborated a systematic pagan mindset to label what was really a diffuse cosmic understanding that varied enormously from place to place and across social classes.  O'Donnell is unapologetically erudite but not formal.  Thoughtful and not dull, but not an easy read, either.

How the Light Gets In / Louise Penny 405 pp.

I can see why Louise Penny and her detective, Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec (metro-area Montreal), are so popular.  Penny has written a smart but accessible mystery  that's carefully constructed to maintain suspense and interest.  An older woman is murdered in her Montreal home with no obvious motive.  Gamache turns to her recent social contacts, which happen to be with a group of his old friends in the picturesque village of Three Pines.  When he learns that the woman was once world famous, his way becomes clearer.  Or it would, except that he's simultaneously dealing with a sinister consipiracy at the highest levels of the Quebec government.

All of the above is true.  What I didn't say in Staff Picks is that Penny's writing is technically smooth but has a practiced feel.  Most of the whodunit aspects were fairly easy to predict.  And reading about the village of Three Pines was like leafing through an L.L. Bean catalog, with a few mildly quirky characters thrown in.  There's loads of food and drink description that feels as though it's meant to appeal to a focus group.    At some point it's hard to care whether a character is drinking hot chocolate with or without a peppermint stick.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max, 200 of 326 pages

I'll be honest: I decided to listen to this audiobook because of the title. Stupid, stupid, stupid me. In this appallingly unappealing book, Max recounts stories of his drunk and disorderly debauchery, including all of the horrible things he and his friends have done to have sex with random women, all of whom are treated as objects. I'm generally a pretty open-minded person, willing to read or listen to whatever, but this one was just too much for me. If even half of Max's stories are half-true... ugh. I can't believe I stuck with this one as long as I did. I guess I was hoping that Max would experience some sort of, I dunno, personal growth or something. Sadly, that's not the case.

Avoid this one like the plague. I mean, unless you're into hearing stories about random drunken sexual encounters, entitled drunk men insulting women just for the fun of it, and explosive diarrhea from a guy that has no remorse. Then go for it.

American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 541 pages

After spending three years in prison, Shadow is heading home when he learns that his wife has died in a car accident, which also killed the man who was going to give Shadow a job. Suddenly liberated and adrift, Shadow falls in with the mysterious Wednesday, who hires him to do some driving and other odd jobs. What follows is a meandering adventure on the backroads of the United States, traveling from one roadside attraction to another, meeting various foreign gods brought here (and later forgotten) by immigrants.

I FINALLY got around to reading this book, which has been on my to-read pile for years (literally), and I'm so glad I did. Shadow is simultaneously complex and simple, serving as a great medium for the reader to observe the much more vivid and intriguing characters Shadow meets on his travels. We never learn Shadow's real name, and I think that's a deliberate choice on Gaiman's part. He has a penchant for writing from the point of view of unnamed (or in this case, nicknamed) characters, which makes way for the story, which as always is masterfully told. Weaving together the old gods and the new (technology, media, etc), Gaiman has created a story of faith, love, horror, coin tricks, and con men, and it's awesome. Check this one out if you haven't already.

As an added note, I read the 10th anniversary author's edition, which included many of the bits that had been edited out of the originally released version, as well as an interview with Gaiman and a post-script about why he, a Brit, chose to write about America. It's well worth picking up this edition, just for those "special features."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cadillac Beach

Cadillac Beach by Tim Dorsey  339 pp.

I don't know who came up with the quirky, Florida crazy man character first, Tim Dorsey or Carl Hiaasen but at this point I think Hiaasen does a better job. Granted this is the first of Dorsey's "Serge Storm" books I've tried but I don't find the character to be one I'm sympathetic to whereas Hiaasen's "Skink" is someone I would happy to know. That being said, this book is an homage to excess. There is excess killing, at least one too many kidnappings, Serge's sidekick smokes way too much dope, Serge writes too many weird letters to politician's and public figures, the authorities (police, FBI, and CIA) are horribly inept, and even the mobsters are uninteresting. Granted, Serge is mentally ill, delusional, and has been repeatedly committed to an institution that he easily escapes. Unfortunately, the crux of the story, Serge searching for the truth of his grandfather's death, gets lost in all the mayhem. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments but they don't save this car wreck (there are too many of those also) of a novel. I almost wonder if Dorsey read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a few too many times.

The Lusitania Murders

The Lusitania Murders by Max Allan Collins 264 pp.

This is a so-so mystery set on the fateful final voyage of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. A journalist and mystery writer is traveling under the assumed name of S.S. Van Dine, ostensibly to interview the famous and wealthy who are making the journey in spite of the warnings of the ship being a target for German submarines. In truth, he is investigating the rumor that the "Lucy" is carrying an illicit cargo of weapons bound for Great Britain. Van Dine ends up working with the ship's Pinkerton detective, Philomena Vance after the accidental discovery of German spies. When the spies are murdered the pair begin searching for a motive and the culprit. As mysteries go, this one is lukewarm at best. It also leaves one wondering if ocean liners of that era were all staffed by idiots.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Buried Giant / Kazuo Ishiguro 317 pages

From the author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, among others.  Axl and Beatrice are an affectionate couple in (I guess) late middle age in post-Arthurian England.  The vicious wars between the Saxons and the Britons have ceased and the land is peaceful, save for the occasional ogre, pixie, and dragon.  But the people of Axl and Beatrice's Briton village are afflicted by a condition they call the mist, which affects their memories such that they collectively forget recent visitors, missing family members, and their own personal histories.  In the occasional periods in which their mental fog lifts, they remember that they have a son, and that they long to see him.  And so they set off on a journey, in which, as in most stories, they will find things they never imagined possible at the beginning.

Everything I've read by Ishiguro is strange, and Buried Giant is certainly that.  Reading this I felt a clammy menace which I recall feeling throughout Never Let Me Go, too.  (That novel has a big 'reveal' at the end which I won't mention.)  It's not pleasant, this feeling, but it is compelling, and I don't know another author who evokes the sensation so well.  While an imperfect work, I appreciate Buried Giant for its strangeness, for its evocative exploration of themes like the burden of memory, and for asking questions like "What are we supposed to do with the fact that we know we're going to die?" and "How are we to get along with one another?"  Holy Grails, indeed!


Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, 296 pages
1992 Pulitzer Prize winner
A 2015 Top Ten Popular Paperback for Teens

Maus has been on my to-read list for ages, so when it popped up on the Popular Paperbacks for Teens list, I took it as a sign to finally read it. It's sort of a biography of Art Spiegelman's father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. It's also about the thorny relationship between the father and son. While Vladek's story is told chronologically with each chapter focusing on one story, Art frames it with whatever is going on in his father's life in the present as he tells the story, whether they're walking to the bank or going to the grocery store. And Art includes his struggles as well - how to tell the story, his arguments with his father, his feelings about growing up with the specter of not only the war but also his older brother who died at a very young age. The art is great, simplistic, but Art manages to infuse each of the characters with plenty of emotion (which is no easy feat when you're drawing anthropomorphized mice and cats!). It's pretty clear why Maus is so revered. Even though Vladek does nothing more than survive, in the light of the atrocities of the Holocaust, even that seems like a triumph. This is easily one of the best examples of the vitality of comics and how well they can be used to tell stories.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Reading Challenge.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ghettoside: a True Story of Murder

An intense read by an LA Times journalist covering the violent crime epidemic in South Central Los Angeles by telling the story of one young man whose life ended needlessly and tragically, and the detective who doggedly pursued his killers.  Leovy's thesis is that the exceptionally high murder rates in South Central and other urban pockets across the US are the result of a kind of lawlessness which stems from several factors, most importantly law enforcement's tepid response to violent crimes in these areas.  Leovy's analysis points to vigorous police activity in response to drug offenses, while high numbers of murders remain unsolved.  In fact, according to Leovy, in many cases of drive-bys and gang homicide, large numbers of people in the community know who the responsible parties are, but are afraid or unwilling to come forward.  In her telling, most residents of these neighborhoods urgently desire a stronger police presence.

Leovy makes excellent points and reveals some top-notch research on patterns of violence.  And mostly this was very readable, although eventually I grew tired of her endless descriptions of the police officer who solved the central murder case in the book.  Although her data and thesis indicate otherwise, her insistence on the officer's rigor, energy, and doggedness imply that this is a matter of changing the mindset of a few score LAPD detectives.  And I can't entirely swallow any discussion of out-of-control violence which doesn't address the ubiquity of guns in our society.

This One Summer

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, 320 pages
A 2015 Printz Honor Book
A 2015 Caldecott Honor Book

Rose goes every summer to Awago Beach with her parents. There she hangs out with Windy, her summer vacation friend who is a little younger than her. This summer is different for Rose - her parents won't stop fighting. Couple that with Rose moving away from childhood and towards adolescence and all that comes with it, and it turns out to be an interesting summer for the two girls, especially when Rose develops a crush on one of the teens boys working at the local convenience store. Soon she and Windy are fascinated by the lives of the local Awago youths, watching from the shadows and listening around corners as drama surrounding a teen pregnancy unfolds. This One Summer isn't a coming of age story, but it is about growing up, and that moment when you realize you aren't quite an adult, but you definitely aren't a little kid anymore. It's about that moment when you realize that your parents aren't infallible and that they lead lives as complicated and full of ups and downs as you do. It's a little bit about that moment when your younger friends can feel considerably younger than you, even if it's just a year and some change between your ages. Some of the reviews I read before reading the book mentioned that the problems between Rose's parents and the teen pregnancy she watches unfold felt like too much for one book, but I disagree. It's true that they don't totally gel together, but when you consider Rose's growing awareness that she too will be like those teenagers someday very soon, plus her growing understanding of relationships (especially her parents'), it becomes this perfect little snapshot of growing up. Jillian Tamaki's choice of using varying shades of deep blue against the creamy color of the pages truly makes it seem like a memory, while Mariko manages to get that cadence of retelling a long story in fits and starts down perfectly. It's a quiet story, despite all that happens in it, but a good one.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Reading Challenge.)