Friday, May 22, 2015

Anne of Windy Poplars

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery, 278 pages

The fourth book in Montgomery's series about red-headed rascally orphan Anne Shirley finds Anne a teacher at a high school in the small town of Summerside on Prince Edward Island. The book covers three years and details many of Anne's adventures and interactions with Summerside's more colorful characters. To me, this book pales in comparison to the first couple of books in this series, in part because so much of the story is told in letters to Gilbert Blythe, who is absent for the entire book. The previous interactions between Anne and Gilbert were always a highlight for me, so it would have been nice to get his reactions to some of Anne's stories. That said, the crochety old women of Summerside were quite amusing, doing their best to make up for the lack of Gilbert.

Zen and the Art of Faking It

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick  264 pp.

Eighth grader San Lee starts the school year at another school yet again. His dad is in jail for fraud and his mother is struggling to keep them housed & fed while paying off his father's legal bills. San hasn't decide how he wants to re-invent himself once again for the new school. When he answers too many questions in World History about Buddhism because he'd learned about it at a previous school, he unintentionally finds his new persona as a Zen Master. What starts out as a way to impress his new found crush, a girl who goes by the name of Woody, San finds himself deeper and deeper in a role that he can't quite fulfill while trying to avoid getting beat up by Woody's stepbrother or losing Woody's friendship. But along the way, Zen changes his life without San realizing it. This was entertaining and the parts about Buddhism were accurate. Unfortunately the cd version I listened to  had lots of skips in it.

The Sellout

The Sellout by Paul Beatty, 289 pages.

Beatty's mad, satirical novel about race and identity, set in modern day Los Angeles, stumbles and stomps over taboo topics and skewers the views of people of every description. The book's narrator, Mr. Me the younger, nicknamed Bonbon by his sometimes semi-girlfriend, tells the story of how he ended up before the Supreme Court (the case is, of course, Me vs. the United States) after his plans to resurrect the his defunct hometown of Dickens, California, results in the reintroduction of segregation and slavery. Along the way he recounts the various crazy social experiments he was subjected to by  his father, recounts the family's running battle with Foy Chestnut, and explores Me's lifelong connection with the town's favorite son, Hominy Jenkins, understudy to Buckwheat in the  Little Rascals. 
 Not for the easily offended, it's a weirdly great book.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, 323 pages.
This incredibly popular book, called in some reviews the next Gone Girl, is a well-written and competently done mystery.
While lacking the last seven or eight extra layers of surprise that GG had, The Girl on the Train is still nimble and surprising.
Rachel's marriage to Tom collapsed under the weight of their inability to have children, their fighting and her drinking. She's lost her job and her home, too. Now she's riding the train all day, making up stories, and messing up everything around her. While on a weekend bender, she witnesses something, she's not exactly sure what, and wakes the next morning bruised and bloody.
While the whole thing works pretty well, there is that one frequently found flaw, not quite enough possible suspects to keep the surprise covered up all the way through to the end.
The characters are fresh, lively, and compelling. A fun read. The audio, read by Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey, and India Fisher, is great.
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Monday, May 18, 2015

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian / Sherman Alexie 229 pgs.

Arnold Spirit Jr AKA Junior is a 14 year old cartoonist and Native American living on a reservation.  He is the smartest kid in his class and decides to leave the school on "the rez" and attend a nearby all white public school in hopes to be able to better himself.  Everyone on the rez kind of knows there is nothing good happening there but they also resent Arnold for leaving.

This book, in some ways, is your typical coming of age story but few of us have experience on a reservation.  The realities of the life Arnold leads include poverty, alcoholism, bullying and violence.  The death rate is higher on the rez than in town where Arnold goes to school.  These topics are dealt with in a realistic manner that gives the book some heft.  An interesting read for all ages.

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The Blondes

The Blondes by Emily Schultz, 384 pages

Imagine what would happen if a certain (and somewhat arbitrary) segment of the worldwide population suddenly became susceptible to an uncontrollable disease. What would happen to society? How would we, as a race, respond? That's exactly what happens in Schultz's The Blondes, in which blonde women (whether naturally blonde or bottle blonde) of all ages suddenly begin contracting a rabies-like disease, causing them to become viciously violent to everyone they encounter. This book is told by redhead Hazel Hayes, who finds out she's pregnant on the first day of the outbreak, and explains the pandemic (and ensuing biocontainment measures) to her unborn child while attempting to avoid those with the disease.

I'm still not entirely sure what I thought of this book. I liked Schultz's wry observations and cynical look at post-9/11 security measures, though I would have liked a little wider view of the pandemic. But I can definitely see how it might appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, and the fantastic graphic novel series Y: The Last Man. If you liked any or all of those, give this one a whirl.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Without you, there is no us

Without you, there is no us / Suki Kim 291 pgs.

Suki Kim has spent some time in North Korea as a journalist and as an English teacher.  This memoir talks about her 2 semesters teaching at a brand new university that catered to the male offspring of the ruling class.  Like many teens, these boys are trying to figure things out like girls, their future, etc.  Unlike other teen around the world, they are living in one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where everyone is watched very carefully and lives are very scripted.  Kim is a virtual prisoner on campus where she too is under the watchful eye of "minders" who have to ok all off campus trips and movements.  Even though the facility is new, the pressure of being so restricted takes a toll on her.  Her students are an enigma to her, they love her but talk horribly about the U.S. and how evil American's are and how many victories North Korea has had over the U.S.  At the same time they lie with no hesitation and make up stories about their wonderful childhoods, food they ate and the perfection of the political system and the dear leader.  This book is a bit draining to read.  It is hard to comprehend how difficult it would be to watch every word you speak in hopes of not being deported.  Of course for the citizens, they must do an even better job and if they don't, their fate is much worse.

Not uplifting!

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The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion  227 pp.

This was one of those books that had been on my "to read" list for a long time. Then when I thought about reading it the timing was horribly wrong. The time was finally right. This is a book focused on the sudden death of Didion's husband, author John Gregory Dunne. At the time their daughter, Quintana, was lying in a hospital in a coma. The couple returned home from visiting her to have dinner when Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died, not so different from my own husband's death as he got ready for bed one night. Didion writes of the surrealness that surrounds you during times like that, odd things you remember and the details you forget. How one can function on autopilot for many things and be lost at sea for others. And how you will see or hear something that makes you think "I need to tell (the dead spouse) about that" before realizing once again that you can't. While coping with the grief of her husband's death, Didion also had to deal with not one, but two nearly fatal illnesses suffered by her daughter and did it with great strength and solidarity. The important point I took away from this book is the difference between grieving and mourning and how grieving is active and temporary but mourning is a lasting process that changes as time passes but never really goes away completely.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

So you've been publicly shamed

So you've been publicly shamed / Jon Ronson 290 pgs.

I just can't get enough of Jon Ronson, his books are great and his style of writing is so relate-able...the topics he chooses are always interesting.  If you are wondering how to survive a public shaming, read this one and follow all the research done by Ronson and the variety of recent public shamings that will have you scratching your head or maybe clapping in agreement.

How do some people's lives get completely ruined?  How are some able to avoid the curse?

Another interesting book from Ronson.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Not My Father's Son

Not My Father's Son: a memoir by Alan Cumming  304 pp.

Actor Alan Cumming (Masterpiece Mystery, The Good Wife) chronicles his life with the main focus on his abusive father and his experience with the television show "Who Do You Think You Are?" He alternates between the past, growing up on the Scottish estate where his father was a supervisor, to the present and the discoveries he made about his family and ancestry. Through the television show he learned the truth about the mystery surrounding his grandfather's death in Malaysia. While this was happening he and his brother investigated the truth of whether Alan was actually fathered by the angry, abusive Alex Cumming. This is not so much a biography as it is a family saga and an insight into the effects of abuse on children even after they are adults. In addition, Cumming's commentary on what he learned about the "torture" women have to go through for the sake of fashion (and the horror of chemical depilatories) when playing a transgender character in a mini-series are wonderful.