Saturday, November 28, 2015

Most talkative

Most talkative: stories from the front lines of pop culture / Andy Cohen 273 pgs.

Andy Cohen is a good Jewish boy from St. Louis.  This memoir tells of his childhood, his devotion to his mother and coming out to his friends and family.  Then, it moves on to his career by starting with his interview of Susan Lucci when he was in college.  Andy doesn't always come across as a real smooth operator and that is nothing but a good thing for the reader.

I listened to the audio version of this book which was read by Andy himself which convinced me this is a great choice for a title.  I wonder if he did the whole recording in one take?

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Black man in a white coat

Black man in a white coat: a doctor's reflections on race and  medicine / Damon Tweedy 294 pg.

Damon Tweedy accepted a scholarship to Duke medical school and from day one has the feeling of being an outsider.  His classmates are almost all out of more exclusive schools, they are almost all from economically better off backgrounds and most are white.  Tweedy begins to dread the part of his education that deals with how much more prevalent and deadly diseases and medical conditions are to the African American population. Every time this comes up, he feels like the class turns to look at him.  But then, when he starts his clinical experience, he sees this disparity first hand...and it is much more uncomfortable in real life than just hearing the statistics.  Tweedy's perspective is interesting. He is diagnosed with a chronic disease that is more common among African Americans and can relate all the more with his black patients that are struggling to be healthier.  Some of the stories in this book are universal...the struggle to fit in, the struggle to do well, the situations where the inexperienced doctor is giving advice to the older, more experienced patient.  I like the way Tweedy admits he doesn't know it all.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Natural Histories / Primo Levi, trans. by Jenny McPhee, 174 pp.

Short stories and sketches all themed on science and technology run amok with amusing and chilling results. There are chickens trained as government censors, a beautiful, frozen woman who is thawed annually as a sort of party trick, and a centaur who falls in love with a woman. Most effective are the connected stories of Mr. Simpson, a sales rep in Italy for the American company NATCA. The company are manufacturers of the Versifier, an elaborate machine which composes poems on demand, and a variety of other wizard-like gadgets, many of them startlingly prescient: the Minibrain, which fits in your pocket and will tell you " many among all the suicides throughout the world..were both left-handed and blond..." or the calometer, which snaps human faces and quantifies their beauty on a 100-point scale. Grim fun that reminded me a bit of Vonnegut.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Truce / Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein 200 pp.

This is the second title in volume one of this Complete Works.  Published in the 60s, it chronicles the 6-month period from the German departure from Auschwitz in late winter 1945 to Levi's return to Turin in the fall of that year.  When the SS abandoned the complex of camps that was Auschwitz, the great majority of prisoners were forced to march out, barely dressed and sometimes shoeless in the snow.  Most died.  At that time, Levi, who had been working in a chemistry lab at the camp, happened to be in the infirmary with scarlet fever and like other sick prisoners he was left behind.   Eventually Soviet troops came and Levi and others were shuttled to various sites within Soviet territory before being sent home.

It's obvious that at the time of this writing Levi maintained great affection for the Russian people, if not for the Soviet Union.   The chaotic (and often alcoholic) Russian management of these thousands of displaced persons would make for comical reading if the context were different.  Levi depicts his caretakers as spirited, generous, and, largely, benign, if exceedingly careless (Levi's word).  It's stunning to contemplate the situation of Levi and his fellows at the end of the war.  They were sick, weak, entirely without possessions or status, and  more than a thousand miles from home.  Considering their extreme vulnerability, their treatment at Russian hands seems admirable.  Levi fully evokes the claustrophobia and frustration of his odyssey in a way that will be hard to forget.


Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories introduced and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, 449 pages

In this collection, Niffenegger gathers together sixteen of her favorite ghost stories, including everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Ray Bradbury to Neil Gaiman to Kelly Link. The variety in these stories is excellent, as some are straightforward, some are spooky beyond all belief, and a couple are really pretty funny. My favorites were the uber-creepy "The Mezzotint" by M.R. James and "The Specialist's Hat" by Kelly Link, as well as the humorous entries from P.G. Wodehouse and Saki. Niffenegger did a great job bringing together old classics and new stories, and her wonderfully weird artwork sets off the stories perfectly.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Black Sheep

Black sheep:  the hidden benefits of being bad / Richard Stephens 249 pgs.

With chapters about sex, drinking, fighting, stress and death, this isn't a "how to" manual but it does give you some well researched support for some bad behavior.  The book grabs attention early with a story about a professor who punctuated his conference talk about "vaso-active therapy for erectile dysfunction" with a demonstration on a live subject...himself.  Not all of the chapters are quite as fun as *that* one.  Psychology has done a lot of studies and some of them can back up your bad behavior.  Science once again improves our lives!

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Monday, November 23, 2015

The Man Who Went up in Smoke / Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo / 183 pp.

This is the 2nd of the Martin Beck mysteries, written in the 1960s by the wife and husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo and set primarily in Stockholm.  Of these, the Laughing Policeman is my favorite so far.

This one is set primarily in Budapest, as Beck is sent there to find a Swede who checked into a hotel there and has since disappeared.  Still a well-plotted story, but something was missing here, and in conversation with an astute patron I think I've figured it out.  According to this patron, Stockholm is a character in these books, and when she's not around, the story loses interest.  (His example was the Harry Bosch story set in Hong Kong, in his opinion not nearly as good as the novels where Harry is on his home turf.  He also offered the Henning Mankell Wallander stories, in which Wallander occasionally goes abroad to solve his crimes.  But I still liked those.)

What do my fellow readers say?  Can you take a detective out of her favorite setting and still have a good story?

Working Stiff

Working stiff: two years, 262 bodies and the making of a medical examiner / Judy Melinek & T. J. Mitchell 258 pgs.

Judy Melinek started her training as a forensic pathologist at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner in July 2001.  She was steeped in training and dead bodies in September of that year when the events on the 11th took the work out into a tented parking lot filled with refrigerated trucks.  But this book is about so much more than the mass tragedies because tragic things happen every day.  Lots to learn in a big city like New York where people die all kinds of ways.  Dr. Melinek gives PLENTY of examples and a bit of her story along the way.

This book is kind of like a car might not like what you see but you can't seem to look away.  I listened to the audio book and my best recommendation is don't listen or read if it is near meal time.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, 341 pages

Harry's back for his second year at Hogwarts, full of more adventure and danger, particularly when an unknown assailant begins attacking students. This is the probably one-millionth time I've read this book (only a slight exaggeration), though it's the first I've read it with my children. They loved it, and spent all weekend waving wands (drumsticks) around and shouting, "Expelliarmus!" while pretending to be Harry and Hermione. Something tells me I'll be blogging about Book 3 before too long...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever by John Feinstein, 366 pages.

This was another of the books pulled from the list of those that had not left our shelves in a long while. I had always meant to read Feinstein. He's a well-regarded sportswriter, and many of his books circulate well. The fact that this one had not had a reader in while had me suspecting that it was one of those lesser books by a good writer. I was surprised to find out that this was not the case. The story Feinstein tells of a fateful night in 1977, when the Los Angeles Lakers played the Houston Rockets, and of the fight that broke out during the game was and is an interesting one.Kermit Washington, the Lakers power forward, was involved in a fight of sorts with the Houston center, Kevin Kunnert. As players from both teams rushed toward the altercation, Washington turned and punched one man who was running toward him, Rudy Tomjanovich. Tomjanovich was seriously injured. Both men were haunted by that split-second action, and though both continued to play, neither one had the career they seemed destined to have before that night. Feinstein does a great job of putting the events in context, of giving a balanced view of the incident and of the many consequences, and of letting all of the principals tell their stories.
This one is a keeper.
I also enjoyed reading a book that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a character as I was beginning to read Abdul-Jabbar's excellent novel, Mycroft Holmes.