Monday, September 30, 2013

Fables 1-10

Fables vol. 1-10, by Bill Willingham, 1766 pages in all

Fables: Legends in Exile, 118 pages
Fables: Animal Farm, 111 pages
Fables: Storybook Love, 192 pages
Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers, 231 pages
Fables: The Mean Seasons, 166 pages
Fables: Homelands, 190 pages
Fables: Arabian Nights (And Days), 161 pages
Fables: Wolves, 159 pages
Fables: Sons of Empire, 200 pages
Fables: The Good Prince, 228 pages

OK, so I'm a little over half-way through my Fables re-read, and since I hadn't blogged about any of them yet, I figured I'd save everyone some scrolling and throw them all in together. As I mentioned this is a re-read, and I'm quite enjoying revisiting this tale of storybook refugees. I didn't get to read them all in a chunk like this last time around, and I'm quite enjoying the continuity this time. That said, some of the things I found so hilarious last time weren't quite as funny this time, probably because 1. I knew they were coming, and 2. they really weren't as funny as I remembered. However, I'm continually amazed by creator Bill Willingham's ability to weave such a great story. It makes the weak spots in this 'verse (like the spin-off, and, here's hoping, one-off Werewolves of the Heartland) even more disappointing. Anyway, if you haven't read this, give it a whirl. It's worth it.

The Audacity of Hops

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli, 400 pages

This book is exactly what the subtitle says it is — a history of craft beer in America, from the early 1970s until Acitelli finished writing it in 2012. The author does a great job presenting this history, with short sections on the creation, major developments, and, sadly, sometimes the demise of various craft breweries across the country. He also does a wonderful job bringing the "characters" to life, including beer critic Michael Jackson, Anchor founder Jack McAuliffe, Boston Brewing's Jim Koch, and perhaps the snarkiest of the bunch, Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing, who made up obviously fake stories and beer styles to lend "gravitas" to his brews. (I particularly liked his tale about how Octoberfest came from the Irish slaves in Germany, who made such a ruckus with the potato harvest that the Germans all shouted, "Ach! Tuber Fest!" Like I said, obviously fake.)

My one complaint about Acitelli's book is that he largely ignores those states between the coasts. Sure, he talks about some breweries in Colorado and Minnesota, and touches briefly on the first brewery in Kansas in 108 years, but there's something seriously wrong with Boulevard being the only Missouri brewery mentioned. Perhaps I'm a bit biased (OK, forget the "perhaps" part), but the St. Louis Brewery (AKA Schlafly) has a heck of a story, growing up in the shadow of A-B, with founder Tom Schlafly lobbying successfully to legalize small breweries in the state. For crying out loud, just the image of a craft brew keg being delivered by dog-drawn wagon into Busch Stadium should have been enough to include what is now the biggest locally owned brewery in St. Louis. Acitelli spent a LOT of ink on the cold (and sometimes hot) war between Big Beer and craft breweries. Schlafly's St. Louis Brewery would have been perfect for this.

OK, I'll get off my soapbox. Despite that one rather glaring omission, this was a fantastic book. I highly recommend it, particularly with a nice local, hoppy beer. I'll be buying this one for my own shelf, to be placed right next to Schafly's memoir, A New Religion in Mecca.

The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas

Ten-year-old Emmy Blue's life on a farm near Quincy, Illinois, is just fine until her father announces that the family is moving to Colorado where gold is being mined. He hopes to build a store and sell supplies to miners. Emmy's mother, Meggie, is not happy about the move and having to say good-bye to family and friends but, like other women of her time, does as her husband wishes. Emmy's Uncle Will and Aunt Catherine travel west with them. The women take pride in their sewing abilities and try to interest Emmy in the handicraft, but she would rather play marbles with a boy in the wagon train. Later, she takes up quilting and is able to stitch and walk the trail at the same time. This novel is based on a true story, and one of the quilts that the family brought to Colorado is in the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden. Snakes, Indians, wild animals and starvation are always potential threats to the group, but Emmy's family is strong and they do not give up and join the "go-backers." This is a great choice for those who enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, quilting, and strong girl stories

Star Island

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen  337 pp.

Not the best Hiaasen I've read but it is full of the usual quirky characters that populate his Florida based stories. Cheryl Bunterman, known by the stage name Cherry Pye, is a no-talent, much hyped singer with a penchant for drugs and booze. Her parents, manager, bodyguard, and hired double attempt to keep her career going while Cherry does everything she can to unintentionally destroy it. Also in the mix is a paparazzo who has decided to make Cherry Pie his life's work. When Cherry is "indisposed" aka in rehab, Ann DeLusia makes Cherry's public appearances to perpetrate the myth that the singer is functional. After her last bender, her bodyguard is fired and replaced by Chemo, a one-armed giant with a mutilated face and a weed whacker as a prosthetic hand. Former governor and road-kill eater, Clinton Tyree aka Skink, a favorite Hiaasen character, makes an appearance when he rescues Ann from a car accident and uniquely assaults a crooked real estate developer with a sea urchin. The plot is thin and a little predictable. The outlandish characters are the highlight.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Almayer's Folly's Folly, by Joseph Conrad
128 pages

It took me a long time to finish this relatively short story.  It wasn't until about three quarters of the way through that I finally admitted to myself that it wasn't "off to a slow start", it simply sucked and wasn't going to get any better.  Conrad's writing is great; it's full of rich description, characterization, and provocative insights.  Nevertheless, all literary techniques are employed in service of a dull plot.  It's analogous to James Cameron shooting an IMAX film about spoons.  And the score was written by Hans Zimmer.

Almayer is the only dutch trader on a certain Malaysian island during the 19th century colonial era.  In his search for wealth he must deal with tension, mistrust, and hostility between himself, the natives, and his Malay wife who he married for material gain only.  At some point he becomes involved with a Malay prince who enlists Almayer's help in smuggling gun powder for the prince's ongoing war with the encroaching Dutch.  My description is a testament to the plot's lack of depth, as I've just given you 98% of the story, and the remaining 2% can be safely left undiscovered. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian trail/Bill Bryson 284 pgs.

I listened to the excellent audio version of this book.  Bill Bryson and his friend Katz hope to hike the Appalachian trail so suit up and get ready with new equipment and the guts to start walking.  This book tells of their adventure and gives some background and history of the trail and the forces that affect it.  Enjoyable and fun to read/listen to, it easily convinced me this is something I should not attempt.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Gods Are Broken! : the Hidden Legacy of Abraham / Jeffrey K. Salkin, 157 pp.

A neat little explication of the story of the boy Abraham breaking the idols of his father, Terah, and the ways in which this is an emblematic Jewish story.  Surprisingly readable and even cheerful in tone, this is a sophisticated work and a fascinating read for anyone interested in how people and their stories are linked. 

Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah: a Reboot Book / Roger Bennett, ed. 352 pp.

I didn't expect to enjoy this, but was pleasantly surprised.  54 passages have been taken from the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), presented in English and Hebrew, and in brief entries, placed in the wider context of the Scripture chapters in which they're found.  Then each passage is interpreted artistically by one of 54 writers, graphic artists, etc.  The results are, of course, mixed, and range in quality from so-so to dazzling.  My favorite was Jill Soloway's take on the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

A Dual Inheritance / Joanna Hershon 476 pp.

A deceptively simple gem.  Ed Cantowitz, working-class and Jewish, meets Hugh Shipley, Boston Brahmin, at Harvard, and they form a tight bond.  Hugh's fiancee, Helen, though not a student, completes the trio.  They graduate and move apart geographically, Ed, to Wall Street and spectacular success, and Hugh, to Africa and beyond, in search of ways to use his wealth for good in remote health clinics.  Many things happen to these characters - marriage, children, divorce, money made and lost - but in some ways these are incidentals.  Hershon gives us the arc of two lives, grounds those lives in a specific time and place, and makes us care about what happens to them.  Lovely writing. 

The Ludwig Conspiracy: a Historical Thriller / Oliver Potzsch 435 p.

I've enjoyed this author's Hangman's Daughter series and expected to feel the same way about his new stand-alone.  Ludwig II, king of Bavaria, died in mysterious circumstances in 1886, and controversy rages in Germany to this day about whether this strange man, who ordered the construction of the famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee, among others, was mad and whether he was murdered as a result.  The authentic mystery is the backdrop for our novel, which alternates between Ludwig's era and the present.  Steven Lukas, a reclusive antiquarian bookseller, unwittingly becomes the owner of an encoded text which reveals the truth about Ludwig and for which shadowy figures are willing to kill. Throw in a hot, chain-smoking art appraiser, and you have a story.  (She's quite a bit younger than Steven, but why should that be a problem?)

Disappointment.  The 19th-century chapters were effective, and Potzsch does a nice job of portraying Ludwig while keeping his edges fuzzy, just as he should be.  The contemporary chapters are dreadful, though, the dialogue clunky and many of the 'thrilling' scenarios completely implausible, particularly those which involve technology.  (Germans don't carry cellphones?) 

But Potzsch is smart and thoughtful, so I wonder if he hasn't just picked the wrong genre.  The whole story is suffused with regret - Ludwig refuses to face modernity, and worries for the direction Germany is heading. Sounds like an obvious foreshadowing, but it's done with delicacy.

World War Z/Max Brooks

World War Z:  An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (unabridged audio, c.2013).  Horror.  432 pages (12 hours on audio CD). 

Ten years after the zombie war (called World War Z by most historians), a journalist with the UN travels the world to record survival stories from those who witnessed the war first hand. 

The abridged version of this audio book has been around for a long time, but the release of the movie earlier this year prompted the publisher to (finally) put out a complete audio edition.  Each part is read by a different actor (including the likes of Nathan Fillion, Mark Hammill, and Jeri Ryan), and Brooks himself plays the role of the interviewer.  This is one of those rare books that actually works better as an audio book--the book is supposedly compiled from recorded interviews, so listening to the myriad actors makes it feel like you're experiencing the interviews first-hand.  This is especially creepy once the descriptions of the war get started (suggestion:  don't listen to this while driving alone at night, especially down a dark country road--I found that out the hard way!).  My one complaint is that, while the CD packaging listed the actors who appeared in the piece, it failed to tell me who was playing who.  As many of the roles require accents (both foreign and regional), it made it almost impossible to identify who was playing whom.  And as I was listening to this in my car, I couldn't exactly stop to ask Google.  The final credits of the recording do list who played which cast members, but by that point I'd lost track of which name went with which story.  That's a pretty minor complaint though, so otherwise I have to recommend this as one of the best audio books I've read. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meet me at the cupcake cafe: a novel with recipes by Jenny Colgan 978-1-4022-8180-8 410 pages

I do like novels that have recipes tucked between the pages, like bon-bons. I do often copy them, but I confess that I can't remember the last novel recipe I used.Let me say upfront that I am not even going to copy any of these recipes. Why? This is a British import and so many of the required ingredients are not sitting on my pantry shelf. That's okay. The sweet story (reminds me a bit of Bridget Jones) is a treat by itself.
 Issy Randall is booted from her job and the man mostly responsible is the man she sleeps with, an arrogant, frustrating Graeme. Unsure what to do next, she finds the opportunity of her life. It is a tiny shop off the busy streets that she thinks would be the perfect location for a cupcake bakery. Baking is her talent. Well, baking and making friends and opening a community haven. The guy who becomes her banker, well, anyone except Issy, can immediately see that he is the real deal. Austin is a  nice stand-up guy who takes care of his orphaned young brother and is just about as oblivious to the charms of shy Issy. This book is labeled Chick Lit and I guess it is.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Memories of a marriage, by Louis Begley

Perhaps I really don’t care that much about the lives of the rich and privileged – I found this book tedious and a waste of time.  The narrator, Philip, who enjoyed a long and happy marriage, runs into an old acquaintance, Lucy, at the ballet.  His beloved Bella has died, and Lucy has long since divorced her husband Thomas.  Thomas, although extremely successful in life, began as a “townie,” and married far above his station.  Lucy’s savage bitterness towards her former husband, who remarried and who has recently died, intrigues Philip.  Through a series of meetings with her and others in their overlapping social circles, Philip tries to discover what really happened between Lucy and Thomas.  Lucy is a totally repellant character and Philip is pretentious.  Ick.  188 pp.

Unless, by Carol Shields

When my book group selected this title to read, which I had read when it came out ten years ago shortly before the author’s death, I could remember little about it except the central premise.  A young college-aged woman has abandoned everything to live, mutely, on the streets holding a sign saying “Goodness.”  Her family, particularly her mother, is devastated and uncomprehending.  As I reread it, I realized that there isn’t really a plot as such to fix it in your mind.  It is more an exploration of ideas, including, of course, what is goodness?  I wasn’t that crazy about the book the first time and didn’t like it much more on second reading I’m afraid.  Too neat an ending for one thing.  336 pp.

A constellation of vital phenomena, by Anthony Maara

The day after I finished reading this first novel, which I was recommending to everyone, it was long listed for the National Book Award.  Jumping back and forth in time between 1994 and 2004, if is set in Chechnya during the two civil wars there after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  By in large, most Americans’ eyes were turned elsewhere during this period and I knew nothing about it except that there had been wars there.  Eight-year-old Havaa must be saved after her mother dies and her father is first tortured, then “disappeared.”  Akhmed, her neighbor and an unsuccessful doctor, conceals her nearby in the only functional hospital, and begins working there with the very skilled surgeon, Sonja, an ethnic Russian who has returned to her home country from London because of her sister.  Her sister, Natasha has disappeared, twice actually.  There are several surprising plot twists that interweave the characters in ways I did not anticipate.  As life becomes ever more difficult and fear of informers destroys any remaining trust, what, if anything, can survive?  A beautiful, heartbreaking and important book.   400 pp.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt  360 pp.

In 1987 AIDS was something to fear and be ashamed of. In fourteen year old June's family it isn't discussed even though her beloved Uncle Finn is dying of the disease. June's mother blames Finn's boyfriend, Toby, and won't allow him at the funeral. When Toby contacts June, they form a bond based on their sorrow over Finn's death. Each does not realize, Finn had given the other the task of taking care of one another. June's talented sister Greta was jealous of June's relationship with Finn and is equally jealous of her friendship with Toby. Greta is troubled in many ways and heading in a downward spiral. Soon the two girls seem to bond only through the portrait Finn made of them. In order for the lies to be revealed and the secrets to be told, the family must reveal their own emotions and weaknesses. But June still holds on to some of hers at the end. There is a lot happening in this story. While AIDS is the catalyst for the events, lies and secrets are the fuel. It's a well told tail about a scary era in recent history.

Linda's review.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The woman upstairs

The woman upstairs/Claire Messud 253 pgs.

Nora Eldridge is one of those utterly dependable women who does her job (elementary school teacher), never causes any trouble and who has completely lost touch with all of her dreams.  She is stagnant and giving up when a special family moves to town and she ends up with the child in her class, then builds a relationship with his mother and then a very different relationship with his father.  I don't mean that to sound odd, she has very separate relationship with each of them interacting occasionally with the whole family.  These people get Nora thinking about her life and possibilities.  She starts working on her art again (she originally wanted to be an artist), she starts thinking a better more interesting life if possible.  Then, they move away. Nora shuts down again, a bit but then a few years later is ready to resume a more interesting life and to visit the family that she had obsessed over. It is on this trip that a betrayal comes to light and anger follows.  Will this be the spark that puts life back on track for Nora?

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Monday, September 16, 2013

The World's Strongest Librarian

The World's Strongest Librarian: A memoir of Tourette's, faith, strength, and the power of family by Joshua Hanagarne  291 pp.

As the title suggests, this book is about the author conquering the odds and learning to live with Tourette's syndrome, becoming a husband and father, and having a career as a librarian.  The random Tourette's tics which range from minor (blinking) to violent (hitting himself) affected Hanagarne's life, physically, socially, and emotionally. From the time he fell in love with Fern in Charlotte's Web books became his refuge. When engrossed in a book his Tourette's tics subsided. The tics were at their worst during Hanagarne's time as a Mormon missionary, causing him to quit before his two years were up. He dropped out of college multiple times before finally finishing. With the help and unflagging support of his family he tried various treatments including having his vocal cords paralyzed with Botox injections, quack remedies, and exercise. Ultimately he overcame (but has not conquered) the problems and became a librarian at the main Salt Lake City Public Library. He married, and fathered a child. The title is a nod to his passion for weight training and his 6'7" frame. It was through weigh-lifting he found another way of controlling his tics. This is a story of a man's incredible persistence and perseverance told with honesty and humor.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Detroit City is the place to be

Detroit City is the place to be: the afterlife of an American metropolis by Mark Binelli 318 pg.

After reading my second book about Detroit, I'm starting to get the picture that things are pretty messed up there.  Mark Binelli grew up in Detroit and moves back as an adult to report on the state of things in his home town.  His perspective is interesting because he has a lot of memories but he also does the research to update the memories he has with how things really were.  We could dedicate this entire blog about the issues in Detroit but lets start by saying there is no money, there is a poor education system, there is very little population remaining in a very large area. And yet, there are bright spots.  At the end of the book, the author is unsure if his sense that things are getting better is based on reality or just his hope.  Either way, there is still quite a climb for this once proud mecca of the middle class and stable job center.

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The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro  245 pp.

I saw the award winning movie version of this a long time ago and finally decided to read the book. The story of the of an elderly English butler told through reminiscences as he takes a "motoring trip" across England. He takes the trip to see the woman who was once the housekeeper at his place of employment in hopes of getting her to return to her former position. As he travels, Stevens, the butler at Darlington House manor for over thirty years, recalls his life and dedication to his work as a "perfect" butler. In the process he realizes how his loyalty and dedication have caused him to sacrifice his own emotions in order to hold up the facade of perfection. His dedication and stifled emotions caused him to refuse to leave his post to be with his dying father, neglect to acknowledge his affection for the housekeeper who clearly loved him, and to ignore the fact that his employer was involved in the Nazi appeasement movement while hosting dignitaries like Prime Minister Chamberlain and German Ambassador von Ribbentrop. Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for this beautifully written portrait of a life devoted to dignity and pride of a well done job.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Vessel/Sarah Beth Durst

Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst; young adult, fantasy; 432 pages

Once each century, the desert clans summon their gods to take human form; the gods inhabit a human vessel (after displacing the human soul inside), and restore water to the wells, heal sickness, and perform other miracles for the well-being of the clan.  The summoning is even more important than usual this year, when the Great Drought has destroyed many of the oases that the clans rely on for survival.  Liyana is the chosen vessel of Bayla, goddess of the Goat Clan, and she is more than willing to give up her life to save her people.  But when Liyana and the clan magicians summon Bayla, she does not come.  Believing her to be unworthy, Liyana's clan abandons her to fend for herself in the desert with only minimal supplies.  Then, on her third (and possibly last) day, a young man walks out of the desert.  He carries no food or water, and claims to be the trickster god Korbyn, of the neighboring Raven Clan.  He says that someone has kidnapped many of the deities that should have come to earth, including Liyana's goddess, and he needs her help to get them back. 

This is far and away one of my favorite books of this year.  The setting is rich and well-developed, and the back-and-forth between Liyana and Korbyn is lots of fun.  There is a villain in this story, but we don't get a glimpse of him until the very end of the book, so most of the conflict comes from trying to survive the harsh and beautiful desert, as well as trying to convince the isolated, self-reliant clans that they must work together to save themselves.  Highly recommended for fans of Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, and Rae Carson (though that last one might be because I'm reader her newest book right now, and it shares a similar desert setting). 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Breakfast with Buddha

Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo  323 pp.

Otto Ringling has recently lost his elderly parents in a car accident. Otto, a cookbook editor for a book publisher and his flakey, new ager sister, Cecilia are set to drive from the east coast to the family farm in North Dakota to make arrangements for selling it. At the last moment his sister announces she is not going but wants her brother to take her guru, Volya Rinpoche (Rinpoche is a title given to respected teachers) to see the property. She has decided to give away her portion of the estate for the Rinpoche to build a meditation center. Otto is highly suspicious of this little man in the saffron robes but has no choice but to agree. However, the little man turns out to be a fascinating companion and Otto can't help but become the recipient of his non/teaching in spite of his anger and frustration over the situation. Otto even learns about meditation and yoga--the latter to a painful degree. The Rinpoche imparts his wisdom while enjoying new experiences like bowling and miniature golf. I enjoyed this book and the gentle way the Rinpoche teaches Otto how to change his outlook. While not laugh-out-loud funny you can't help but smile while reading it.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Of course, much of the fun of this book is recognizing the many St. Louis places and landmarks that are in it.  Sittenfeld followed her husband here from the east coast when he was offered a job at Washington University.  It will be interesting also to hear her speak at the April Friends of the Library event.  Identical twin sisters, Vi and Kate (nee Daisy), have “senses.”  From a fairly early age, they become aware of their ability to sometimes foretell the future.  Kate has had the happier life – she’s married to a man she loves and has a charming two year old daughter, Rosie, and new baby Owen.  She has made a conscious decision to put her senses behind her.  Vi has had a troubled life, dropping out of college her first year, never settling down with a partner, and making her living in low-paying jobs.  When her ESP helps find a kidnapped child, she parlays this into a more successful career as a psychic.  All hell breaks loose when she predicts that a major earthquake will hit St. Louis on October 16.  Kate’s husband Jeremy is a scientist in Washington University’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, and he and his colleague, Courtney, have a rather different take on this prediction.  A page-turner, and, not surprisingly, the earthquake turns out to be somewhat different than predicted.  397 pp.