Monday, September 29, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos  341 pp.

I read this a couple years ago when it won the Newbery Award. I re-read it because it is the first book for the Treehouse Book Club.

Combine Eleanor Roosevelt, a strange old lady writing obituaries, a dying town full of odd characters, hot paraffin, a bomb shelter, and a surplus airplane and you have the makings of an entertaining story. As if suffering from chronic nosebleeds wasn't bad enough, Jack has been "grounded for life" for firing his dad's souvenir war rifle and mowing down his mother's corn crop (on his father's orders). The only place he's allowed to go is to help old Miss Volker write obituaries for the elderly of the town that are dying off at a rapid rate. In spite of his grounding, Jack manages to get into more trouble often with the assistance of his father. His mother wants the town to be saved while his father is hired to move the vacant houses from Norvelt to West Virginia. Where does Eleanor Roosevelt come into it? Norvelt was a Depression era government project to provide homes for the poor miners. Because she played an important part in its creation and the town was named for Eleanor Roosevelt. Gantos takes a part of his childhood and liberally adds fictional details to make a fun book about a boy learning that life is not always what it seems.

The Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker  512 pp.

In 1899 a lonely Polish man enlists the help of a disgraced rabbi to make him a golem, a creature made of clay, to serve as his wife. On the journey to New York, the man dies on board the ship leaving the golem, Chava, to fend for herself in a new world. Only an old rabbi recognizes what she is and takes her in to teach her how to get along in the world. She lives in a boarding house on the Lower East Side and takes a job in a bakery. Meanwhile a Syrian jinni arrives in New York sealed in an olive oil flask. He is released but wears an iron cuff which means he is not truly free. Ahmad, the jinni, makes his home in Little Syria helping the tinsmith who accidentally freed him from the flask. A chance meeting between Chava and Ahmad leads to an unlikely friendship. Enter the villain who wants to control both magical creatures for his own nefarious purposes and the story takes a new turn. While this is a fantasy, strong historical fiction elements describe the immigrant experience of two divergent cultures making new homes in America. Different and enjoyable.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, 438 pages

When I was twelve, I was a hardcore Backstreet Boys fan. It started with the music (thanks TRL!), then quickly went to searching online for any and all information I could find, then to coming across and reading what could only be later termed fanfiction (and even writing my own, which, thank god, only stayed between my equally-obsessed bestie and myself). Then Harry Potter got big, my musical tastes changed, and I dabbled in reading Harry Potter fanfic (Sirius/Lupin are my OTP) and speculating online about what will happen while waiting for the next book to come out. I say all this just to give you an idea of how much I identified with Fangirl.

Cath, like most of the world, is a huge Simon Snow fan. The difference is that she spends a lot of her free time writing fanfiction about Simon and his roommate, Baz, and that a lot (we're talking thousands of views) of people are reading it. About to start her first year at college, she's not only dealing with the anxiety of moving away from home, but also with the fact that her twin sister, Wren, is determined to have a separate life from her while there. Her roommate, Reagan, is surly; Reagan's boyfriend (or is he?), Levi, is always around, even when Reagan isn't; and the only class that she cares about is Intro to Fiction-Writing. Still, she manages to carve out a life on campus, despite the occasional family/school drama. Rainbow Rowell is so good at evoking what it's like to be a slightly awkward college freshman, to have to deal with people you only slightly know hanging out in your tiny dorm room (hi to all the sweaty nerds who piled into my room and onto my bed to hang out with my roommate), and to feel sorta disappointed that your freshman year isn't aligning with what Hollywood thinks should happen. And she's just as equally good at evoking what it's like to be so intensely into something, whether it's a band or book or TV show (sorry for all those rambling, one-sided conversations about Nine Inch Nails, Abby and Malena), but also feeling like you have a dirty secret, that I spent a lot of my time shouting I KNOW THAT FEEL while reading this book.

I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. If you're a fangirl (or fanboy!) about something, anything, you will like this book. If you like romance, you will like this book. If you were ever awkward, unsure of yourself, more inclined to stay in on a Saturday night than the rest of your floor in college, then you will like this book. Contemporary isn't something I choose to read a lot, but after reading Fangirl and also loving Eleanor and Park, I'm willing to make an exception for Rainbow Rowell.

The Vacationers

The Vacationers / Emma Straub 292 pgs.

Jim and Franny planned a fabulous family vacation with their two kids and one other couple for their 35th wedding anniversary.  Well that was great until Franny found out Jim had recently cheated on her with a very young woman at work...she found out when the company fired him after many years of service. But the vacation was paid for so they went.  Also in attendance are their son Bobby with his much older girlfriend Carmen and their daughter Sylvia who will be leaving for college just days after the end of the trip.  Franny's dearest friend Charles and his husband Lawrence are also along.  They are holding their breath waiting to here about a possible adoption...something they have been working on for over a year.  Clearly everyone here has issues although none are insurmountable.  A couple of weeks together do shed some light on issues.  A bit of a chick lit title.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014


Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking / Susan Cain 333 pgs.

One third to one half of the population are introverts.  What does this mean?  They can be people with outgoing personalities at times but who prefer to "recharge" away from a crowd.  It follows that extroverts often gain energy from crowds.  How to manage these differences in a group at work, in personal space or really any relationship?  Cain gives plenty of information.  Being an introvert isn't a bad thing, just a different.  She says that introverts are sometimes misunderstood but does a good job of educating readers.  What to do if you are an introvert, have one in your class (teachers), have one as an offspring?  Great advice is contained in this book.

I enjoyed the examples of famous introverts and feel very schooled on the differences between introverts and extroverts.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell 624 pp.

Bone Clocks, David Mitchell's latest, comes embedded with a print soundtrack.  For each of the book's eras - '80s, '90s, 2010s, etc., he shares the music his characters hear in a way that adds texture and depth to the story.  So it is fitting that I write my review with a song in mind.  It's Sedaka's Breaking up Is Hard to Do.  Careful Blog readers will recall my love bordering on creepy stalker passion for Mitchell's writing in Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Even Number9dream, while not a fantastic book, was a very good one.  But in Bone Clocks, it's not me, it's him.  Or we've just grown apart.  Or something.

Holly Sykes has always heard voices and had nighttime visitors that no one else can see.  So when as a teenager she has a terrifying vision in a tunnel, followed by witnessing a hideous double murder which memory is later redacted, we know that her otherness is gravely important.  (But redacted?  Seriously?  I can watch the X-Files by my ownself, thank you.)

The story follows Holly over her long life, which stretches years ahead of our own time.  We learn that there are Temporals, who live outside of time, in a continuous cycle of rebirth.  They fight the Anchorites, who would like to be Temporal, but can only do so by decanting souls from the living.  We read the story from the points of view of different characters, such as Holly's husband Ed and her short-term lover Hugo Lamb, a delightfully sinister character recycled from the novel Black Swan Green.  Particularly annoying is the long section devoted to Holly's later life friend Crispin, a middle-aged author whose best days are behind him.  He doesn't figure into the plot, really, making it seem that Mitchell has asked his audience to read over 100 pages of semi-autobiographical whining about not winning the Booker.  (Justified whining, but distasteful nevertheless.)  In sum, the novel is 80% character development, with a brief action-packed climax, followed by a frighteningly real post-apocalyptic epilogue.  It has an angry, anti- quality -  anti-Booker committee, anti-religion, anti-Chinese, mild anti-Americanism -  but doesn't compensate us with a compelling mythology or deep meaning.

Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet / David Mitchell 479 pp.

Read this ages ago and apparently never put it on the blog:

Jacob accepts a position as clerk with the Dutch East Indies company at Dejima, a fortress-like town off the coast of Nagasaki circa 1800. He is young, reverent, intelligent, and scrupulously honest, which traits may make it difficult for him to make his fortune quickly enough to marry his sweetheart Anna back home in Zeeland. His plans get complicated quickly when he meets Orito, a beautiful but disfigured midwife. Worse for Jacob, he is not the only, and certainly not the most powerful, man interested in her.
  I could give much more detail about the plot, but that would do little to convey what I found wonderful about this book. The dialogue is so intricate and complex (and often, extremely funny) that it deserves to be called Shakespearean. Mitchell conjures up a world that most of us know nothing about - Japan in a state of almost complete isolation - and makes it fully real. Jacob's inability to discern friend from foe, even among his own countrymen, overlays perfectly with the challenges inherent in all cultural collisions. Suspense, mystery, and the interplay of faith and the Enlightenment. What could be better?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkowski, 355 pages

Ten years ago, Valoria conquered Herran, a peninsular nation that valued art and philosophy slightly more than war and military prowess. Like all good conquerors, the Valorians enslaved whatever Herrani were left. While at the market one day with a friend, Kestral, the daughter of the general who led Valoria to victory, finds herself stuck in the crowd of people around the day's slave auction when a young Herrani blacksmith comes up for purchase. Without totally realizing what she's doing, or why, she finds herself bidding on him, pushing the price higher and higher until she finally manages to win. A little surprised with herself, she brings the smith, Arin, home and puts him to work. But she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him, and is soon looking for ways to talk to him about him and his life before slavery. And Arin, despite playing an integral part in a plot to lead the Herrani into rebellion, also finds himself drawn to her, wanting to legitimately know more about her, and not just looking for information that will be helpful to his secret cause. When the rebellion happens, Arin's role in it feels like betrayal, and Kestral, who can usually manage to out-think her opponents before they realize it, doesn't see it coming and is left not knowing what to do or who to trust.

This book is beautiful, from its cover to its words. Marie Rutkowski does a fantastic job of making both Arin and Kestral nuanced characters. Both are filled with doubts and uncertainty over who they are, if they can be what others need them to be. And even when we're reading their perspective, you can never really know the truth of them, as they both manage to avoid thinking about and examining their true feelings, especially about each other. Rutkowski is so good at writing around the edges of things, leaving the reader to try and fill in the empty spaces between words, that even after spending time inside both Arin's and Kestral's heads, they still manage to be enigmas. The action definitely picks up in the second half of the book, and keeping track of the time gets a little difficult. With so much happening by the end of this book, it's hard to see where the rest of the trilogy is going to go. But I'm ready to be surprised, and ready to spend more time with Arin and Kestral.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Heart of a Goof

The Heart of a Goof by P.G. Wodehouse  256 pp.

If you don't know anything about golf this book may bewilder and bore you since all the stories are centered around the game, various eccentric players, their romances, marriages, relationships, and their mishaps on the links. The characters are all quintessential Wodehouse in their foibles and oddly touching characterizations. Whether it is a young man trying to impress a young woman but going about it entirely the wrong way to a married man who bets away the faithful family butler in a round of golf, these tales of the Edwardian upper crust are amusing, once you get past all the golf talk. While this is far from my favorite, I am still a devoted Wodehouse fan.

Get up!

Get up! Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it / James A. Levine 234 pgs.

I picked up this book thinking it would be another one of those "you should do THIS to solve all your problems" but then give some action plan that would require devoting your life to accomplish.  Instead, this is incredibly fun to read.  James Levine has studied obesity throughout his career and has had FUN doing it.  He shares all kinds of personal stories and insights and they will make you laugh.  He also tells you how to improve your NEAT - non-exercise activity thermogenesis.  These are the calories you expend just living your life.  These days that life includes a LOT of chair time.  Dr. Levine says we can make a huge difference by just standing up.  Get out of the chair and life a longer happier life.  Seems like a pretty decent trade off.

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