Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wild Thing: a novel

Wild Thing: a novel / Josh Bazell 400 pgs.

Wow, I've been looking forward to this book since 2009 when I closed the cover on Beat the Reaper but then when I laid my hands on it, I was scared that it would live up to the predecessor.  I guess it is save to say that I had nothing to fear.  There is enough craziness here to make anyone happy (anyone who loves craziness) and there are plenty of interesting asides.  Looks like Josh Bazell loves him some research and could easily compete in our book challenge.

This book finds our hero under another assumed name and still getting flack from his former mob associates.  He takes a job working for a rich guy to get off the cruise ship where he is working (remember how good you felt about going to the hospital after Beat the Reaper?  Don't read this if you have a current cruise reservation). The good doctor teams with a sexy paleontologist and they go in search of a scam artist, a relative of Nessie or maybe just the saddest town in America.  They have run-ins with a variety of super rich and/or famous people who are out looking for their own thrills.  The story ends abruptly (not unsatisfactorily) and you are left 62 pages of appendix and sources to keep you busy.

This was worth the wait but I do wonder how far along the author is with his next book.

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The Pilgrim / Hugh Nissenson / 356 pp

A fascinating and strange novel about an idealistic young man's journey to the New World shortly after the founding of the Plymouth Colony. Contains extremely graphic descriptions of gallows activities and repeated references to a certain unmentionable topic.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London / Andrea Warren / 156 p.

I loved this book, full of photos and illustrations, that demonstrates Dickens' particular dedication to improving the lives of London's children through his writing. Warren makes the case that change occurred in the government, financial, and social realms in large part because of the Dickens' portraits of children such as Nell, Oliver, and many others.

Underground Time: a Novel / Delphine de Vigan / 257 p.

An interesting premise that went nowhere. A lonely, stressed-out Parisian woman is told by a fortune teller that she will meet an important man on a certain day. A lonely, disillusioned Parisian man happens to step into the metro at just the right moment, but... A case of a moderately talented writer who has no respect for her readers.

Dead end in Norvelt by Jack Gantos 341 pages

This is the well deserved new winner of the Newbery Award. Some past award winners have been those special books for special (adult) readers. Not this. This semi-autobiographical novel (hey, the protagonist is actually named Jack Gantos!!)and the setting is his childhood hometown. Norvelt is a historical Pennyslvania town. It was created during the Depression and its name was a salute to EleaNOR RooseVELT. The town itself is rather depressed but its inhabitants are wildly colorful. Jack's plans for a fun summer are cut short by his shooting accident. He is grounded for life except for frequent timeouts to help an elderly handicapped neighbor write her obituary column for the local newspaper. It is kind of like reading a Richard Peck historical novel on steroides. Jack Gantos has written many books: the raucous Rotten Ralph (Ralph is a badly behaved, but beloved pet cat) series for the picture book audience and Joey Pigza (his ADD problems are compounded by his father's schemes) for middle grade readers. Hole in my Life was his warts and all autobiography published last year. All of them are a bit dark, but uproariously funny. Kudos to this year's Newbery committee for making the right choice.

Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets "Festive" / Jen Yates / 219 p.

Another hilarious collection. The lesson to be learned here is that large blobs of brown icing are a no-no, unless you're trying to create a reindeer toilet motif.

How It All Began / Penelope Lively / 229 p.

I have never read anything by Penelope Lively that I did not like, and this was no exception. In contemporary London, an older woman is mugged. This sets off a cascade of events among friends, family, and strangers. Not earth-shattering, just thoughtful.

American Nations: a History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America / Colin Woodard / 371 p.

Loved this analysis, which presents aspects of American History in a fresh light. Yet another historical work in which Woodrow Wilson is lambasted. I'm definitely going to have to investigate that further.

If I have to list an objection, it would be to say that the analysis is incomplete without taking into account what I see as the current great division in our culture: sub/urban vs. rural. Pull off the expressway in the middle of nowhere and go to McDonald's. Just doesn't feel like home.

So apparently I'm a Borderlander/Appalachian. What are you?

The Beauty and the Sorrow / Peter Englund / 540 p.

I'm stretching the category a bit here, but I thinks it's fair to call this a biography. In this case, we have the biographies of 20 people who lived and experienced the Great War. They are men and women of many nationalities representing both sides of the conflict. Englund has pulled their stories from journals, letters, and other records and takes us through a chronology of the war, laying out each of their stories over time. This is a fascinating approach, although initially it makes for challenging reading. I found myself flipping back and forth repeatedly to check the photos of each 'character' as their entries came up. This unique work is well worth the effort.

The Ogre of Oglefort

The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson  247 pp.

The late Eva Ibbotson wrote several good children's books about ghosts, witches, and creepy beasts. Sadly, this is her last one, but it contains a gaggle of grim-ish creatures. Princess Mirella doesn't like doing princess-y things and wishes to be a bird rather than get married off to Prince Umberto. Mirella runs away to the Ogre of Oglefort who has the power to change people into animals. The Norns send a hag, a troll, a wizard, and an orphan on a mission to kill the ogre and rescue the princess. Instead of killing him, they end up caring for the ogre, who is depressed and wants to die to join his dead wife. This motley crew defend the ogre's castle against the armies sent by Mirella's parents and a group of ghosts sent by the Norns to finish the job they failed to do. The antics are fun and the characters are quirky, rather than scary.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Orchard: a memoir by Theresa Weir 227 pages ISBN 9780446584692

Last year I read The Year Money Grew on Trees, a junior historical fiction novel about a boy who is "tricked" into caring for a neighbor's orchard after her husband dies. Caring for the orchard is a full time operation and the author manipulated siblings, cousins and friends to help. This is a poignant memoir about the author's marriage to the son of apple orchard owners. Her new husband is artistic and hoping to create the next perfect apple, "Miranda". The author is rejected by her new mother-in-law because she is considered an outsider and socially beneath the family. After the quick courtship and subsequent marriage, she believes that her husband does not truly care for her. When she tries to run away she hits a horse and totals her car. She worries about possible contamination because of the heavy use of pesticides. I find it amazing that the author is just one year younger than me. This book should also interest readers interested in farming, especially organic farming. The heavy use of pesticides take a huge toll on farmers and consumers. Although it is still January, this is my favorite non-fiction book of 2012.

The Wizard's Tale

The Wizard's Tale by Kurt Busiek 144 pp.

Bafflerog Rumplewhisker is an inept and kindhearted evil wizard who has been ordered to find the long lost Book of Worse. Once the book is found it will mean the end of all hope and light and freedom for everyone in the world. Bafflerog sets off on a quest with his enchanted toad, Gumpwort, and the son of a woodcutter who wants to be a king. Their journey may mean the end of everything. This is a dark story with unexpected humor and lightness. The artwork by David T. Wenzel is perfectly suited to a tale of wizards and magic. This is a fun book.

The Family Fang

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson  309 pp.

Christa blogged on this book and there's not much more I can add. Annie and Buster (Child A and Child B) grew up performing in their parents' "Happenings." As adults they do not cope well with their lives. Flashbacks to their childhood and their forced participation in what their parents call art, give some insight into their dysfunction. In the end it's hard to tell whether they or their parents win the prize for the most dysfunctional. My money is on the parents. I was somewhat reminded of Augusten Burroughs' stories of his dysfunctional upbringing.   

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

What is most surprising to me about this biography is that such an even-handed, honest, yet affectionate, book could be written during the lifetime of a unique and difficult individual. It reads like a novel. But who could have made up such a protean figure? Isaacson sheds light on the forces that shaped Steve Jobs – his unusual parentage, his adoptive home, the revelation at the age of 30 or so that his birth parents subsequently married (and divorced) and he had a full sister, the novelist Mona Simpson…it all sounds almost unbelievable…. The author also skillfully weaves most of the important figures and events of the “digital revolution” into a compelling history of the times. Jobs obsession with perfect design and his ability to get his associates to produce seemingly impossible results due his “reality distortion field” are legendary. So were his quirks – his odd diets and eating habits; his questionable hygiene; his problems with relating with other humans. What didn’t he touch in his relatively short lifetime? Personal computers, the way we listen to music, smart phones, the magical movies of Pixar – at the end of the book, one mourns not only Jobs, but the creative ideas that may have died with him. As Jobs said shortly before his death, “I like to think that something survives after you die. It is strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures. But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like and on-off switch, Click! And you’re done. Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.” 571 pp.

Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier

William Faulkner meets Deliverance and/or Thunder Road. Well, that’s not really fair, but this book, while an engrossing page-turner, ultimately annoyed me. He can write so well and it should have been better. Luce, who is living alone as a caretaker in an abandoned summer resort in the foothills in North Carolina, is suddenly presented with the guardianship of her sister’s young boy/girl twins. They have witnessed their mother’s murder at the hands of their stepfather, which has rendered them mute, or perhaps they were born damaged. Bud, the stepfather, has beaten the rap and appears in the mountain town near the resort. He is convinced that the twins hold the key to missing money, money he stole and that his wife concealed from him while he was drunk. Meanwhile, the heir to the resort has also arrived to check out his late grandfather’s property and finds Luce and the children. A kind of romance ensues. Oh, did I mention the tiny, corrupt, but respected, sheriff is Luce’s father – and that he and Bud form an uneasy friendship based on Bud’s bootlegging? When the twins run away into the forest to evade the wicked stepfather, I swear I heard banjos…. On the other hand, good does triumph over evil ultimately. 272 pp.

I feel bad about my neck and other thoughts on being a woman, by Nora Ephron

Ah, a sentiment most woman past 40 or so can identify with. Nora Ephron has written some of my favorite movies, and I remember reading her hilarious and vindictive Heartburn, a thinly veiled account of her marriage and divorce from well-known journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame when it first came out. This book of light essays is an enjoyable diversion, and those near the end of the book, which treat more serious subjects, are surprisingly moving. 137 pp.

The sense of an ending, by Julian Barnes

This very short (160 pages) novel recently won the Man Booker prize and is told from the prospective of looking back at the age of 60 or so. At school, Tony’s circle is joined by a new boy, Adrian Finn. They keep in touch during college, although they are beginning to go their separate ways. Tony has a girlfriend, Veronica, and they break up not long after he is invited to visit her family, where he meets her parents and older brother. Their relationship has never been consummated, and when Adrian writes to ask Tony’s permission to begin seeing her, he fires off a letter which comes back to haunt him 40 years later when Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him an unexpected legacy which may explain subsequent events. Tony has led a quiet, uneventful life – I was reminded of the line “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Looking back, he explains, “…after all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the sixities? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the sixties’ until the seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side.” Although many have praised the book – more of a novella than a novel – I found it ultimately less than satisfying. 160 pp.