Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli

The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli, Crime Fiction, 320 pages. Piccirilli has written a grim, great book that is blends the casually violent and unfeeling characters of a Scott Phillips novel with the nostalgic bittersweet feel of one of Richard Russo's small towns. Terry has been working on a ranch out west for five long years. He wants to come home now and visit his mom and dad, and his little sister, Dale. He left them and his two uncles and grandfather at home on Long Island with no explanation when he left. He also wants to see Kimmy, the girl he was going to marry before he ran off. He has a lot of explaining to do, and no one explains much in Terry's family. No one really offer a reason why the whole Rand family are a bunch of thieves, that's just what they do. And no one knows why they have the goofy names (and the corresponding tattoos) they do, it's just several generations of habit. And no one can explain what drove older brother Collie to do the horrible crimes he did that landed him on death-row. Sharp, unforgiving, and well-written, with flashes of dark humor.
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The new new rules

The new new rules: a funny look at how everybody but me has their head up their ass / Bill Maher 354 pgs.

Bill has several "new" new rules that will entertain you.  Why do we watch things on Netflix streaming that we would NEVER consider watching in any other form?  He also has comments about sexting, cheerleaders and politics.  I'm not certain that everyone has their head up their ass but Bill certainly can't has his up there since he manages to see a lot around him and comment on it.  I listened to the audio of this and enjoyed it being read by Bill himself.

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Books Make a Home

Books Make a Home: Elegant Ideas for Storing and Displaying Books by Damian Thompson, 159 pages

In Books Make a Home, Thompson examines different ways of displaying and storing books (as can be figured out from the subtitle). But let's be honest here: it's really book porn. Filled with beautiful photos of built-in bookshelves, reading nooks, and artfully arranged piles of books, Books Make a Home will just make you want what you can't have, namely a bigger house to implement these ideas. It's a drool-worthy book, and only serves to feed a bibliophile's addiction.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Blankets: an illustrated novel

Blankets: an illustrated novel by Craig Thompson 582 pgs.

Craig is in that awkward time in adolescence when you are changing fast and having many doubts about yourself.  I think so many of us feel like we don't fit in, especially around those late teen years.  Craig is thinking about a life as a minister and wants to dedicate his life to the lord but as time goes on, he starts to doubt his faith and other long held beliefs.

This graphic novel is beautifully drawn and takes us through flashbacks to Craig's childhood up to his first love and then quickly recounts the years right after he graduates from high school.  By then he is having doubts, he leaves home and ends up not going in to the ministry but starts a career drawing and writing.

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The man upstairs and other stories

The man upstairs and other stories by P.G. Wodehouse 312 pgs.

No Jeeves are Bertie featured here but still a wonderful collection of hilarious stories by one of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse.  Too many specific favorite but certainly enjoyed "The goal-keeper and the Plutocrat" when Clarence is told the family fortune has been lost and that he has to get a job, his reply is:

"Me?, work?  Well, of course, mind you, fellows do work, I was lunching with a man at the Bachelor's only yesterday who swore he knew a fellow who had met a man whose cousin worked.  But I don't see what I could do, don't you know."

If you have not tried any Wodehouse yet, consider an audio.  Everyone I've listened to has been excellent.

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The Guns of August

The Guns of August/Barbara Tuchman 511 pgs.

A great and very readable account of the events leading up to and early part of WWI.  The book starts out with a royal funeral and hooks you right away with personal details of the royal attendees and their relationships to one another.  The high school history class accounts of this war leave out a whole lot of intrigues and information about how it was almost a very short war.  Had the German generals stuck with their original plan, things could have turned out quite differently.  Of course there is no telling what the world would be like today had the war turned out differently but it is a topic that gives you something to think about.

Thanks to Andrew the leader of our "Readings in History" book group for this title.

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The Bizarre Truth

The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked Out the Door Mouth First...and Came Back Shaking My Head by Andrew Zimmern  271 pp.

I enjoy watching Andrew Zimmern's shows on the Travel Channel although some of the strange foods he eats leave me a little queasy. In this book Zimmern gives some of the stories behind the filming of the shows including anecdotes of mishaps and dangerous situations he found himself in. The rest of the book is about the people of different cultures he has met in his travels, his favorites of all the foods he has eaten around the world and experiences he had in kitchens with some of the world's great chefs. However, the real point of this book is teaching travelers to step away from the organized tours and "safe" (& boring) hotels and restaurants to explore the markets and out of the way places in different countries in order to meet the people and really experience different and unusual cultures (many that are in danger of extinction). Some of his food descriptions will leave your mouth watering, others not so much. In a similar way, many of the foreign places he visited make me long to hop on a plane and go there, while for others I can easily say "no thanks." This book was as fun to read as his shows are to watch.

A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, 273 pages

I don' t know that I've ever read a book quite like this one. Rather than tell a straightforward story about a fixed set of characters, Egan flits between characters who are tangentially related or just mentioned off-hand earlier in this book, which won the Pulitzer. A Visit From the Goon Squad starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac who once worked for a music producer, then wends its way through that music producer, his high school friends, Sasha's uncle, the music producer's mentor, and others. It's a captivating story, full of very real characters, who suffer from all manner of neuroses, both common and uncommon. I definitely recommend this book, though I'm still trying to reconcile it in my head.

Money Rules

Money Rules: The simple path to lifelong security by Jean Chatzky 114 pgs.

This book is full of the basics.  All great advice.  Don't let the fact that you aren't as smart as Warren Buffet to prevent you from saving and investing.  In fact, don't let any other excuses get in your way either.  Practical tips from Jean Chatzky that could go a long way for almost anyone.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  410 pp.

This is the sequel to Wolf Hall in which King Henry VIII enlisted Thomas Cromwell's help in divorcing his wife, Queen Mary, to marry Anne Boleyn. Now Henry has grown tired of Anne and has become enamored of the young Jane Seymour. Henry now enlists Cromwell's aid in ending his marriage to Anne who has failed to provide him with a male heir. Cromwell succeeds in finding women who bear witness to Anne's infidelity and men who "confess" to having affairs with her. The end result is multiple executions, including the beheading of Anne. The title of this book does not refer those who were executed. The phrase "bring up the bodies" was used in trials and means "bring in the prisoners." As in Wolf Hall the story centers around Cromwell and his actions during that period. The author portrays Anne as an arrogant and frequently unpleasant woman which makes Henry a more sympathetic character than in most novels about his marriage to the second queen. Mantel intends to make a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell but I don't know when the third book is being released.

I liked Bring Up the Bodies much better than Wolf Hall. This time Mantel toned down the use of pronouns and didn't leave you wondering which "he" was speaking as in the first book. I'll have to wait and see how the third book is.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Batman: Knightfall, vol 1/Chuck Dixon

Batman:  Knightfall vol 1, by Chuck Dixon and many, many others; graphic novel; 640 pages

Thank you, DC, for redoing this collection.  I tried to read the previous attempt at collecting this series last summer (here, here, and here), and found it to be a huge challenge--the volumes were long out of print, and, as the story spanned a half dozen DC titles at the time, it had not been collected completely, and so was full of holes.  I'm pleased to say that the new collection appears to be much more complete (the first volume is nearly three times the length of its first incarnation), but some of the art has been touched up to make it a little more tolerable.

For those not familiar with Batman, the Knightfall storyline is notable for the introduction of Bane, whose presence in the new Batman movie triggered the reprint.  That's not the only notable thing about this story, though:  It's one of the few instances where Batman actually loses (at least in this first volume).  See, Bane isn't just a muscle-bound goon as he may have been depicted in previous Batman movies (Joel Schumacher, I'm looking at you...).  He's actually one of Batman's more clever opponents:  when he wants to take over Gotham, for instance, he doesn't take on Batman directly, but instead stages a mass breakout of Arkham.  Over the space of a few days, an already exhausted Batman is forced to take on every villain he's ever faced and then some!  It's only when he's at his weakest that Bane makes his move, leaving Batman gravely injured, and forced to place a substitute in the cowl to keep order in Gotham.  This is riveting stuff; it took years to tell and (to my knowledge, at least) it's like nothing else that's ever been done in comics.

As I said, this collection does a much better job of collecting the story (even including a Scarecrow miniseries that seems to have been the basis for Batman Begins), but there are still a few holes--mostly concerning things that happened before this arc began.  I can't fault DC for that though; at over 600 pages, there was a lot to cram into this volume, and the second installment looks to be about the same length.  I'll be honest--the art is inconsistent, but that's to be expected with the wide range of writers and aritsts working on this project.  Can't wait to read the rest of this story!

Half Magic

Half Magic by Edward Eager  192 pp.

I don't know how old I was when I first read this book--it was around when I was a kid.  It is just as good today as it was back then. Eager has written one of those timeless stories about four children who find a magic coin that grants them wishes but only half way. After some highly amusing mishaps involving knights, invisibility, a riot and other wild goings on, the children learn the best way to double their wishes to make the half magic work. Besides being amusing, this book is a timeless story that is enjoyed by children just as much today as it was when it was published nearly 60 years ago. This is one of my Treehouse Book Club books for 2012-13.  

A Hustler's Wife by Nikki Turner

A Hustler's Wife by Nikki Turner p. 259

Yarni is a young teenage girl being raised by her single mother because her father is in prison and has been since she was a baby.  Her mother, Gloria, feels guilty because she doesn't have her father so she tries to make up for it with material things.  She respects her mother and listens to her advice.  She isn't dating yet because her mother thinks she is too young.  That is, until Des comes into her life.  Although Des is in his early twenties and Yarni is only fifteen, he asks her mother's permission to date her.  Yarni's mother is so impressed by the young man, she allows them to see each other.  Des makes sure she goes to school everyday and rewards her when she gets good grades by buying her lavish gifts with his drug money.  They fall in love and he wants her mother's permission to marry Yarni.  This is where Gloria draws the line.  But that doesn't stop them.  They get a fake marriage license.  Yarni then moves in with Des.  All seems to be going well until Des is taken to jail for murder.  Yarni stays by his side, even after Des is sentenced to prison, at the surprise of his mother, Joyce.  Joyce has never liked Yarni because she thinks she just wants his money.  Yarni proves she isn't going anywhere and truly loves Des.  Although she dates other men, who prove to be very bad choices although she couldn't tell right away, she never stops visiting Des, accepting his calls and writing him.  Their love prevails through it all.  But how long can this last?  Will Des ever get his sentence overturned?  If he doesn't will Yarni eventually leave him?
              This is my second time reading this book.  The first time I read it I was about fourteen or fifteen.  I remember my reaction to the book.  I loved it.  However, reading it this time, with all the knowledge I have gained and with my life experiences, I can now say that I do not know what I was thinking.  This book has so many mistakes and is poorly written.  I only picked it back up because she wrote more in this series and I never read them because I stopped reading Urban Fiction a long time ago.  Every once in awhile I will pick something up though and I decided this series would be it.  Mistake. Can't believe I actually read the whole thing, and I've even started reading the second one (which has much less mistakes and is better written).  I would not suggest this to anyone at work or any of the patrons.  If they ask for it though, I'll keep my opinions to myself.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Bell

The Bell by Iris Murdoch  342 pp.

I selected this off a list of books published in my birth year. I haven't read too much of Murdoch's work and I admit I had a hard time getting into this one. Technically, the heroine of sorts, is a young woman named Dora who is married to Paul, who is quite frankly, a jerk. Dora is not a particularly likable person either. Most of the action takes place at a religious lay community known as Imber Court. There is quite a mixture of people living at the estate, some there for religious reasons while others have a different purpose. There is also an abbey on the property and one of the characters is planning to become a nun there. The bell of the title refers to both the new bell that has been ordered for the abbey and the old bell of legend that sunk in the lake and was never recovered. Both bells play a part in the story. There are various conflicts going on, besides the battles between Dora and Paul. The other main conflict involves Michael's feelings about his sexuality. The book is quite outdated in its treatment of homosexuality and the role of women in society. I was underwhelmed by the entire novel.

Team Human/Justine Larbalestier

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan; young adult, mystery, humor; 352 pages

This is in some ways the stereotypical teen vampire romance:  mysterious brooding vampire enrolls in high school, falls in love with brainy girl, brainy girl wants to spend eternity with him.  What's not typical is the narrator of this book, Brainy Girl's best friend, who thinks vampires are stupid, and is determined to keep her BFF on Team Human. 

Words cannot express how much I loved this book!  Mel, the narrator, is snarky, sarcastic and abrasive, and I totally want her to be my new best friend.  She views the relationship between Cathy (the BFF) and Francis (the way-too-old-for-Cathy vampire) with the disdain that most reserve for Twilight.  But vampirism is legal in Mel and Cathy's world, so it's only a matter of time before Cathy turns 18 and undergoes the change.  Mel spends most of this book trying to pry the two of them apart--and along the way, she meets Kit, a normal human guy who's been raised by vampires, but who seems like a perfectly ordinary person (with a nice smile, and a great laugh...).  There's also a mystery element to the book, but I can't say much about it without giving things away.  Definitely one of my must-reads for the summer!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Looking Glass Wars

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, 358 pages

Alice in Wonderland is a whimsical fantasy story about a little girl falling down the rabbit hole into a mixed-up crazy world, right? According to The Looking Glass Wars, it's based on a true story, told to Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) by Alice Liddell.Only Dodgson got it wrong. Alice is actually Alyss Heart, a princess of Wonderland who accidentally falls into our world. Alyss is on the run from her evil Aunt Redd, who has killed Alyss's parents and usurped the throne.

This is certainly an interesting re-imagination of Dodgson's tale. I enjoyed the twists on the classic story, but I was disappointed by the flat writing style. My brother recommended this to me, and told me I have to read the whole series, so I will. But there are so many better YA books out there.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Fallen Angel

The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva   405 pp.

The bad thing about finding a series that you really like is waiting for the next book to come out. I waited impatiently for the arrival of this latest book in the Gabriel Allon series and, as soon as it arrived I devoured it. Now I am once again in a state of waiting for publication of the next book. The fallen angel of the title refers to a member of the Vatican staff who falls to her death from the gallery of the Basilica. The supposedly retired Mossad assassin, Allon, has returned to art restoration and is working for the Vatican when the death occurs. Charged with finding the killer by the Pope's secretary, Msgr. Donati, Allon abandons the Caravaggio painting he is restoring and sets out to discover the truth. But this is no simple murder. Once again Allon is pulled into the work of "The Office" and reassembles his old team who seem like old friends to the fans of the series. The story goes from a murder mystery to one of money laundering, terrorism, and a plot that could destroy Israel and kill thousands of people. Once again, Silva has written a finely crafted thriller with enough twists to keep the reader riveted. Please hurry and finish the next book, Mr. Silva.

Batman: Full Circle/Mike W. Barr

Batman:  Full Circle by Mike W. Barr; graphic novel; unpaged

This story is the follow-up to Batman:  Year Two (which I haven't read!), and builds on major events from that arc--namely, Batman's final confrontation with Joe Chill, the mugger who killed his parents when he was just a boy.  In this sequel, Chill's son dons the mask of The Reaper, a deceased villain who Batman defeated years ago.  While Batman and Robin try to figure out how the Reaper has returned, Chill's son and daughter plot ways that they can destroy the man who brought about their father's death. 

Unlike Anarky, this book didn't do a whole lot for me.  I had a LOT of trouble believing the Joe Chill's kids, whom he abandoned when they were small/in utero, would care enough about him to seek revenge.  And the way in which they do so is too elaborate and complicated for me to believe.  This was only a one-shot, so I might have liked it more if there had been more room for character growth.  I will be seeking out Year Two, however, as that seems to be where the meat of this story lies. 

Batman: Anarky/ Alan Grant

Batman:  Anarky by Alan Grant; graphic novel, young adult; 208 pages

Anarky is an interesting character--and one that I didn't know much about, as I've only seen him in a few very brief appearances--so this collection of his "greatest hits" was a fine way to introduce him.  In fact, I learned a lot more than I expected about him--like that fact that he was originally introduced as a possible replacement for the current Robin!  Or the fact that, despite his looming height and mind-boggling intelligence, he's only 15 years old (albeit a genius).  I have trouble seeing him filling the Robin role, especially given how fiercely independent he is.  One of the really interesting things about all of the stories contained here is that Batman and Anarky have very similar ideals, but drastically different ways of interpreting them (something that puts them on opposite sides of most conflicts).  Still, it's hard to class Anarky as a villain--he really is trying to help people!--so I'm putting him firmly in the grey area occupied by Catwoman and the like.  A very good collection that shows the characters' evolution over several decades. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Man Made

Man Made: A stupid quest for masculinity by Joel Stein 285 pgs.

When Joel Stein and his wife found out they were having a boy, he panicked.  Never a "real man", he felt like he needed to learn man things so he could teach his son.  This book is his account of the activities he decided pursue to feel like a real man.  This includes things like camping out with boy scouts, drinking whiskey, doing a shift in a fire house, spending several days in basic training and getting beat up by Randy Couture.  Some of his quests seem kind of stupid but since I'm not a man, what do I know?  In the style of true confession, he tells of of each fear and worry that he has about each activity and then gives an embarrassingly honest account of how it goes for him.  As you might guess, there is a bit of repetition.  In the end, I think Joel realizes that there isn't a universally accepted "masculine" definition or set of required experiences any more than an area that you and I feel we are deficient.  I think he is happy with the exposure he had during this experiment but also more comfortable with himself as is instead of focusing on what he is "lacking".  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Magic Words: the tale of a Jewish boy-interpreter, the world's most estimable magician, a murderous harlot, and America's greatest Indian chief / Gerald Kolpan 400 p.

A fantastic surprise, as well as a minor disappointment.  The surprise for me was Kolpan's amazing and mostly true tale of Julius Meyer, who emigrates from eastern Europe to Omaha just after the Civil War.  He has an almost-supernatural gift for languages, so when he's captured by the Ponca while on a trading mission Julius quickly goes from being their lowly prisoner to the interpreter and right-hand man of the Chief.  A second storyline involves Julius' cousin Alexander, a magician of almost-supernatural ability as well, who takes on a deeply hostile former native American prostitute as assistant.  As Julius falls in love with the Ponca chief's daughter, he comes to occupy a strange and poignant position: having left Europe to escape anti-Semitic persecution, he effectively becomes a member of a nation itself on the verge of annihilation.  Golpan manages to combine deep historical knowledge with the capacity to share that knowledge with the reader in a way that is fresh and vivid, a bit like E.L. Doctorow.

Now for the disappointment: Magic Words is full of subplots and minor characters, every single one of them interesting.  But I suspect that Golpan wanted to write a 1,000-page novel and was asked to cut it down.  (for marketing purposes - who knows?)  The result is a book that often has an amputated feel.  Golpan's skill and the significance of the book's themes could have supported a longer text, and I think the results might have been stunning.  As it is, I still recommend it, and plan to read Golpan's next book.


Zombie by J.R. Angelella, 339 pages

Jeremy Barker is a 14-year-old zombie movie fanatic, attempting to navigate the tough world of an all-boys Catholic high school while dealing with his stoner/sex-addict older brother, pill-popping mother, and his dad, who mysteriously disappears night after night. To deal with life, he's created a survival code based on the zombie movies he so loves, which works until he begins investigating a disturbing video he finds in his father's office. The book gives a great look at how teenagers talk and think when the rest of us aren't around, but the mystery of the video is a little flat and the sudden violent turn at the end (one word: ew) didn't really appeal to me. But that also seemed to mirror the few zombie movies I've seen, so perhaps someone who enjoys zombies more would get more out of it.

Batman Adventures: Dangerous Dames & Demons/Paul Dini

Batman Adventures:  Dangerous Dames & Demons by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm; graphic novel; 192 pages

Dini and Timm are important Batman people to me:  they created Batman:  The Animated Series in the early 90's, and introduced me to the world of the Dark Knight (I still hold that TAS is one of the best on-screen adaptations of the comics!).  Little did I know that these two had also done a series of comics for DC while the show was in its heyday.  So of course I had to track it down. 

According to Timm's commentary in this volume, most of the stories revolve around female villains, because he likes to draw pretty girls (to be fair, Batgirl also makes an appearance).  There are appearances of Poison Ivy and Catwoman, but the real draw is the story Mad Love, which tells the origin story of Harley Quinn.  I was familiar with this story because it did eventually make it into the animated series (albeit after they stopped doing the good animation), but this was the original source material, and was quite a lot of fun.  Best of all, because Timm's art is also the art of the tv show, I got to imagine the Joker with Mark Hamill's voice throughout the book!  Nerdgasm! 

Finding this book was like finding lost episodes of one of my favorite shows. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger

An only child and now approaching her mid-twenties, Amina lives with her parents in Bangladesh.  Her father has been on a downwardly mobile spiral for years.  Money wasn’t available for her to go to school beyond the age of thirteen.  However, an avid scholar, she has studied alone and actually passed the high school exams and found work tutoring English.  When Nasir, who once might have been considered a suitable match, returns from working in England changed by the experience into a very religious man, Amina begins to explore Internet dating.  She meets George, an engineer from Rochester NY, and moves to the States to marry him and begin a new life.  There she also meets George’s cousin Kim (who was adopted and is not a blood relation), a wild child who has a failed marriage to a handsome, wealthy Indian man in her past.  Still childless three years after her marriage, Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her aging parents back to Rochester.  But both George and Amina have secrets that may threaten their lives and doom their relationship which come to a head during her trip home.  Written by an American but primarily from Amina’s point of view, I was taken by the way the author was able to enter the inner world of an immigrant in America and also convincingly depict the lives of her family, only just a few steps removed from village life in Bangladesh.   Recommended.   337 pp.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The kings of cool

The kings of cool: prequel to savages by Don Winslow  322 pages.

The movie "Savages" which is currently out is based on Winslow's previous book.  Here he has decided to fill in some background so we can see how the characters GOT to the place they are in Savages.  I read the first book when it was new and was excited to see this one.  I think I like it even more than the first one and now I will have to see the movie.  Of course it is tough to have a prequel if the movie does well...how do you make the actors look just a few years younger?  Guess we will see how the box office works out before worrying too much.  I enjoyed the relationships in this book.  Ben and Chon and their interesting parents.  O's mother was featured in the last book so nothing much new to report about their relationship.  We do learn about her father.  Overall I like these characters and I like Winslow's style of writing.  I would say read the books in any order.
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Batman: Absolution/J. M. DeMatteis

Batman:  Absolution by J. M. DeMatteis and Brian Ashmore; graphic novel; 96 pages

Ten years ago, a terrorist bombing of a Wayne Industries facility left dozens dead and hundreds injured, many of them personally known to Bruce Wayne.  Jennifer Blake, the terrorist leader, was never caught, and Batman has spent the last ten years tracking her down to administer justice.  What he finds, though, isn't a heartless murder, but a missionary seeking redemption. 

This was a great study in forgiveness and change.  Batman hunts his prey with his characteristic intensity, following leads across the globe (one takes him to Columbia, MO!), and tracking one who is, to him, a cold-blooded killer.  But we also get glimpses of Blake through the years, seeing her regret, and her attempts to come to terms with the atrocities she's committed.  Batman eventually follows her to India, where he has to confront his own moral code.  A truly great Batman story, and one that I'll certainly remember.  Ashmore's watercolor-like art is a great addition to the story. 

An economist gets lunch

An economist gets lunch: new rules for everyday foodies by Tyler Cowen 293 pgs.

How can you top a book about two of my favorite topics...economics and eating?  I guess you can have Tyler Cowen write the book.  He is excellent and has a wonderful way with words as well as food.  There are some things that you might have always thought about food but economic theory and Cowen's practice debunk.  Another book that challenges locavore's to re-examine what they are advocating.  Best of all, hints on how to find good food and cheap food.  Often these can be one in the same.

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Ragnarok: The End of the Gods  by A.S. Byatt  177 pp.

Byatt gives her version of the great end of the world battle of Norse mythology juxtaposed against a young English girl during the time of World War II. The girl and her mother have been relocated to the country while her pilot father is off fighting the Nazis. The girl, called only "the thin child," reads a copy of Asgard and the Gods and compares their situation to that of the war. She is convinced that her father will never return, having been killed in the war just as the gods, giants, and monsters were in the battle of Ragnarok. However, her father returns and she must change her worldview to become one of light again rather than the dark she had become used to both in life and in reading of Ragnarok.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander 314 pages

A novel premise. Two sixth graders have been the masterminds behind a protection society that foils bullies and solves problems -- for a price or future favor.  They conduct their "business" in a little used school bathroom. Over the years, they have accumulated quite a stash. This might be the year to cash it all in because their lifelong goal is to go to a Chicago Cubs World Series game. Anyone who follows baseball knows that the chance of the Cubs playing in the series is slim to impossible, but this year it looks like it might happen. Unfortunately their business hits some major snags when they try to stop Staples, the legendary school bully. Then it looks like they have a traitor to the organization. Even if you have zero interest in baseball or the Cubs, this writing is choice.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, adapted by I.N.J. Culbard  124 pp.

This graphic novel is based on a Lovecraft story published shortly before his death. A group of scientists set out to explore Antarctica and take samples of plants, animals, and minerals. Upon finding ancient pieces of slate with apparently man-made markings, the group splits up with one group setting out to find the source of these markings while the others remain at base camp. They end up at an unknown mountain range where they discover the bodies of strange creatures in a cave. When base camp loses contact with the explorers a pair sets out to find them. What they discover is an ancient abandoned city built by incredibly advanced creatures. This book wasn't as creepy and gory as the previous Lovecraft adaptation I blogged on. The artwork was much simpler and less dramatic also.

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

I’m puzzled by the title of this book, as well as by the book itself.  Near Dublin, Gina Moynihan, recently married to Conor, meets Sean Vallely, a married father of one daughter, Evie, and neighbor and friend of Gina’s sister, Fiona.  Nothing happens after this first meeting for a few years, but ultimately they begin an affair that affects everyone around them.   Meanwhile, it is gradually revealed that Evie has health problems and is a worry to both her father and her mother, Aileen.  Chapter titles seem to all be 60’s rock-and-roll songs, which is also puzzling (The Shoop Shoop Song: It’s in his kiss; Will you love me tomorrow, etc.) since the book is set during the recent financial meltdown of the Celtic Tiger, and the rest of the world.  I haven’t read the author’s Man Booker award-winning book, The Gathering, and must admit this new novel, which I guess I put on reserve since it was nominated for the Orange Prize, doesn’t make me want to.  Gina loves Sean, Sean loves Gina but it isn’t his first affair, Aileen is odd, Evie outgrows most of her mysterious fits then grows into a troubled teenager.  So……..?  Sorry, I don’t get it.  Gets great reviews from lots of other more literate folks – or does the Emperor have no clothes?   263 pp.


Neonomicon by Alan Moore  174 pp.

This is an interesting, if gory, graphic novel that uses the mythology created by H.P. Lovecraft as an underlying theme. A strange collection of serial murders/mutilations are being investigated by the FBI after one of their star agents goes from being investigator to murderer. What they find is an underworld of sex, drugs, violence, and otherworldly creatures all connected to the writings of Lovecraft. It is creepy and extremely violent and the artwork by Jacen Burrows enhances the darkness of the story. This is not a book for the squeamish. The only problem I had with it is that I haven't read Lovecraft in about thirty years and I feel the need to go back and re-read his stories to really understand the connections.

The 500 by Matthew Quirk 323 pages

Mike Ford seems to land THE dream job after finishing Harvard Law School. He had great grades, but is saddled with a crippling debt, the medical bills caused by his mother's illness prior to her death. His job for a powerful Washington based consulting company promises a great salary. He finds the house of his dreams and ends of working with the girl of his dreams. So, what could go wrong? It turns out that the work is dirty, even dirtier than the crimes committed by his father and brother. The clients looking for governmental favors are sometimes guilty of horrific crimes. The higher ups expect him to do the impossible and the immoral deeds.The pace is breathless, the action dynamic and the plot twists come quick. A great summer read.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Monday Mornings

Monday Mornings: a novel by Sanjay Gupta, M.D.  290pp.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is mostly known for his work as a medical correspondent on CNN. He is also a neurosurgeon and professor of medicine. So it isn't surprising that he knows his stuff when it comes to writing about the behind-the-scenes goings on of hospitals and doctors. This is his first attempt at fiction and it is a successful one. The "Monday Mornings" of the title refers to the "Mortality and Morbidity" conferences that happen among hospital physicians and surgeons to discuss the wide range of complications and mistakes that occur in the practice of medicine. (I've probably been the subject of some some of those conferences--if a medical complication can occur, it will happen to me.) The story focuses on several doctors and surgeons in a Detroit hospital: the Chief of Surgery, an ex-football player/ER doctor, a neurosurgeon who has lost his confidence after the death of a young patient, a workaholic Korean neurosurgeon who wants to prove to others that he is the best, an extremely attractive surgeon who is questioning her sense of purpose, and others who feed in and out of the various story-lines. Some of the doctors face life and/or career altering or ending events. In the end, it is a book about realizing what in life is really important.

I enjoyed this book. It was fast moving and contained enough twists and turns to keep the plot moving and the reader interested.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears / Peter Carey 229 p.

My first Peter Carey experience.  A woman who makes her living as a museum curator restoring antique clocks loses her lover and descends into grief that borders on madness.  She is given a special project: the restoration of a 19th-century robotic duck.  As she works, she becomes entangled in the journals of the forlorn man who commissioned the duck, himself a grieving father.  Strange and a bit sinister; I can't say I understood all of this, but it was engrossing.

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller 412 pages

This is not so much the story of how a crown was lost as the tragic year of the last Russian royal family. It is told in the form of diary entries, with each chapter told from the point of view of one four grand duchesses: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia.These final days of Imperial Russia are told with great compassion.The author does a fine job of portraying the differences between the daughters, as well as showing Nicholas, the great czar trying to cope with the political changes as an everyman who works out his frustrations chopping lumber and shoveling snow.While I remembered the skeleton of the tale of the family's demise, I had no idea that it happened so gradually. The sisters shared duties working at the hospital taking care of stricken soldiers, before they became  political prisoners themselves. It was especially interesting reading this historical novel after reading the biography of Catherine the Great a few months earlier.

Island of Vice

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's doomed quest to clean up sin-loving New York by Richard Zacks  431 pp.

In the 1890s New York was the place that had it all: financial empires, manufacturing, entertainment, the ultra-rich and the destitute poor, as well as crime, prostitution, casinos, corrupt politicians and police under the watchful and corrupt eye of Tammany Hall. Spurred on by the public denouncements of vice by the Rev. Charles Parkhurst, the people of New York wanted a reformation of the city's evil ways. Enter a young Theodore Roosevelt as a new police commissioner. This was a Roosevelt before San Juan Hill and his "big stick." Roosevelt is determined to clean up all that is evil in the city, especially the police who turn a blind eye to the criminal goings-on...for a price. TR does his job well, too well. The people wanted things cleaned up, just not too much. When they lost the right to a cold beer on Sundays, police stations where the homeless could sleep at night, and entertainment at private parties the rebellion against the reformers began in earnest. What started as an effort to clean up the crime problem became meddling in the lives of generally law abiding persons. Soon the people and Roosevelt's own Republican Party turn against his puritanical attitudes and ways are found to get off the Board of Police Commissioners--by getting him out of town and into Washington, D.C. as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The puritanical zealot Theodore Roosevelt is quite different from the boisterous, outdoorsy, jovial man he is depicted as being during his years as President of the U.S.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

This is how:proven aid in overcoming shyness, molestation, fatness, spinsterhood, grief, disease, lushery, decrepitude & more-- for young and old alike / Augusten Burroughs 230 p.

I didn't read Scissors so can't comment on that book's relationship to this one.  Burroughs here takes it as a given that he had a disastrous childhood, assuming (probably correctly) that most of his readers will have gotten the scoop from his extremely successful earlier work.

This Is How is more self-help than memoir anyway and, works fine on its own.  Each chapter deals with one of the items in the title and describes Burrough's approach to dealing with it.  In a word, Burroughs mantra is truth: whatever it is that's causing you pain, look at it squarely, understand it , and put it behind you.  Regarding alcohol addiction, I suspect he knows exactly what he's talking about; the chapter on obesity I found unconvincing. 

What really shines here are the clarity of Burrough's prose and his intense earnestness.  He has been through hell, survived, and you can too.  Such is the power of his writing that, at least while reading, you believe it too.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Carry the one, by Carol Anshaw

Quite the worst for wear, a car full of friends and relatives leave the wedding of Carmen and Matt at 3 AM.  A few miles down the road, driven by a stoned girlfriend who has not even remembered to turn on the headlights, they have an accident that will haunt each of them, in different ways, over the next decades of each of their lives.  Relationships will be changed, some will be destroyed by guilt, and others will turn tragedy into art, social service, and a greater understanding of life.    None of them will be untouched and all are changed forever.  Recommended.  253 pp.

A land more kind than home, by Wiley Cash

Nine-year-old Jess is the center of this neo-Gothic Southern novel which is set in a rural area of North Carolina.  His brother Christopher, known to all as “Stump,” is three years older, but mute and, in some undiagnosed way, damaged.  Mother Julie is a faithful attendee at the evangelical church run by the charismatic Carson Chambers.  Snake-handling and poison drinking are features of worship.  When Stump sees something he shouldn’t have, the pastor decides it is time to “cure” Stump, setting in motion tragic events that have their roots in earlier history and relationships.  The local midwife, formerly a regular congregant of the church, has removed the children from it for the past ten years, fearing for their safety.  But she cannot save them all.  I’m actually not sure how I felt about this study of evil, except depressed at the end.  It isn’t Faulkner, but is being well-reviewed elsewhere.  306 pp

Are you my mother? A comic drama, by Alison Bechdel

Bechtel broke out into the mainstream with her graphic novel Fun home, in which she attempted to come to terms with her upbringing and with her father’s closeted gay life and suicide.  Herself lesbian, she was best known for her comic strip Dykes to watch out for before Fun home.   Are you my mother cleverly plays on the title of the well-known children’s book, in which a baby bird is hatched in the absence of his mother and goes from one animal to another asking that question until he finds his real mother.  In Bechdel’s second graphic memoir, she explores years of therapy and her own relationships, as well as, in a way, psychoanalyzing her mother, a gifted and frustrated woman  in a house full of secrets.  In the end, like the little bird, she seems to find the real mother.  The drawings are wonderful and this “sequel” to her earlier book very well-done.  Wonder if she’ll tackle her two brothers next…  390 pp.

The starboard sea, by Amber Dermont

This first novel is set at the seaside Bellingham Academy, the prep school of last resort – where those wealthy and privileged kids are sent when they flunk out or act out of more prestigious prep schools.  Jason Prosper’s best friend, roommate, and sailing companion, Cal, has committed suicide in their junior year at Kensington and Jason both misses him intensely and feels responsible for his death.  Sent to Bellingham by his father, he meets the similarly damaged girl, Aiden, and they begin a curious relationship which leads to further tragedy.  The sailing scenes are marvelous and obviously written from deep knowledge of sailing and competitive racing.  I’m sure the prep school dynamics will also ring true to those who have that background.  But it as a study of coming to terms with one’s sexuality that the book will succeed for most readers.   308 pp.

Prague Winter, by Madeleine Albright

Subtitled “A personal story of remembrance and war, 1937 – 1948,” this fascinating and well-written book by the former, and first woman, Secretary of State will be a disappointment if you are looking for a traditional memoir.  It covers her first twelve years, and obviously she wasn’t able to take detailed notes at birth.  It is much more a succinct history of Czechoslovakia and its place in history, particularly during the time period in the subtitle.  I was surprised to learn that her father had preceded her in working at the United Nations and it is clear that public service was in her genes.  What was also in her genes, unbeknownst to her until she was 59, was her Jewish heritage – and the knowledge that much of her immediate family had actually perished in the Holocaust.  It is one of the clearest brief histories of World War II that I have ever read and with its emphasis on the artificial “national” borders created by victors, a good compliment to Anthony Shadid’s The Stone House.   416 pp.