Friday, January 31, 2014

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink. 558 pages.
Katrina caught everyone at Memorial Hospital unaware, but no one can really fault them too much for that, as everyone everywhere seemed unprepared. Mayor Ray Nagin called for local Hospitals not to evacuate, but when the water rose, generators failed (these were generators, never designed or tested for running the entire hospital for days and days, or for having circuits underwater), life-sustaining equipment failed, supplies ran short, and trained staff found that they were not trained for these kinds of conditions.
Fink documents, through most of the book, the events and the conversations that led to several seriously ill Memorial patients dying on the Thursday after the storm. No one was ever convicted of a crime in relation to the deaths, though Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses were arrested.
It is a fascinating story, and Fink does an admirable job sifting through the conflicting evidence. She is convinced, and does a very good job of convincing the reader, that some staff at Memorial made the decision to euthanize certain patients. Forty-five people died at that one hospital, and many of them had morphine present in their bodies when autopsies were performed.

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Bitter Brew : The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder.

 Bitter Brew : The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder. 396 pages.
We discussed this at our January book group meeting. Many of the participants were native St Louisians, who were familiar with the story. One complaint about the book was that there was little contained here that could not be found in Post-Dispatch articles, that there was no evidence that the book brought anything new to the story of Anheuser-Busch, or the sale to Inbev. I found it to be a nice, if gossipy, overview of the whole story. All of the Busch heirs to the throne, Gussie, August Busch III, and August Busch IV are portrayed as womanizing heavy-drinkers. IV is cast as a pathetic alcoholic, and not really capable of running, or saving the company. It seemed to me, after reading this, that if IV's plans to keep the sale from happening, if he had saved the company (and other Busch family members and shareholders bear a lot of the responsibility for tanking IV's plans and selling the company), he would be seen in a different light (and maybe Adrienne Martin wouldn't have died in his bedroom). More firearms, accidental deaths, and suicides than I had expected. A quick and lively read.

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The Free by Willy Vlautin

The Free by Willy Vlautin. 320 pages.
I was able to get a free ARC of this book at ALA Midwinter last week. It was the only thing that I had with me on a bus ride back to the hotel, so I started reading. Leroy Kervin wakes up, and his mind is clear and he can remember things for the first time in years. He can remember everything that happened before the roadside bomb exploded in Iraq, and everything that has happened to him since. He also recalled what his mind has been like in the time since the explosion, "when every time he closed his eyes it felt like he was drowning in mud."
Leroy is terrified that this clarity is an illusion, that if he goes back  to sleep, when he awakes he will be lost in the fog again
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The Affair by Lee Child

The Affair by Lee Child, 405 pages.

One of the Reacher novels that is set in Reacher's past. In this one he is still a Major in the Army and he is sent in undercover to investigate, from the outside, the killing of a young woman outside an Army base. Along the way he discovers a variety of conspiracies and has to decide whom to trust, the beautiful local sheriff (an ex-Marine with a storied past of her own) or the Army chain-of command. Not as many beat-downs as in some of the series, and not too much over-the-top violence. A pretty good thriller.
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Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: An Homage to P. G. Wodehouse by Sebastian Faulks. 243 pages.
Faulks, the author of Birdsong, and Charlotte Grey, tries his hand as P. G. Wodehouse, in this wonderful re-creation of a Jeeves and Wooster tale. He does an admirable job.
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Downloadable Audiobooks.

The last Policeman

The last policeman / Ben Winters 316 pgs.

So what happens when the end of the world is no longer just a prediction but is actually going to happen?  The big bang is coming and I'm talking about a large asteroid that is going to hit earth.  You have 6 months left.  Lots of people quit their jobs and start working on their bucket list.  Many others kill themselves...suicides are rampant.  Some others pretty much ignore the coming doom and just keep doing their job.  Henry Palace is one of those guys.  He is a policeman recently promoted to detective and he is still out there wanting to solve crimes.  His last suicide seems fishy...he is SURE this is a murder, not a suicide and he won't rest until he finds the killer.  Most around him really aren't interested in doing the detail work, so many are killing themselves why not let this one fall into that group? Palace is a natural cop, he can't help but do his job.  Enjoyed the book and all the lines of thinking that come up when we are down to our last 6 months.

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The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien. 440 pages.
The final book in the trilogy. The best part, or at least a very good part of this volume is the appendices, with the genealogy of the Numenoreans, Hobbits of the Shire, and dwarves, in addition to the timelines and language guides.
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The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien. 353 pages.
The second volume of Tolkien's classic trilogy. It's funny how repeated watching of Peter Jackson's movies have colored my memories of these books. Even though the scenes and phrases are familiar, I still found myself waiting for the parts that were only in the movie.
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Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. 423 pages.
The first volume of the famed trilogy. I read it over the holidays, finishing it just after 2014 started. I was given a boxed set of the hardcover edition of Lord of the Rings about a decade ago. I think this is the second time I have read this edition, after reading the books countless times decades ago. I remember finally repairing my paperback edition with duct tape.
The section on Tom Bombadil was fun to read. I had always skimmed over that after the first reading.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sanctuary Line

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart 226 pgs.

Set at the Butler Farm, her family's now deserted farmhouse on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie, entomologist Liz Crane narrates in melancholy and moving prose her recollections of her family, particularly summers spent throughout her childhood.

 “We were in and out of the house and in and out of the lake all day long in the summer, always running, often together and joined by a gaggle of my cousins’ friend, the screen door banging behind us and driving the mothers mad.”

Liz has moved back to the family farmhouse which is situated close to the nature sanctuary where she is studying the migratory pattern of monarch butterflies.  The butterflies often serve as a metaphor for the loss and beauty described in this novel.  The author evokes such a strong sense of place, it made me nostalgic for the countless summer days spent with my cousins at my grandparents’ farm, and yes banging screen doors and making aunts and uncles mad.

Though relatively short, it took me several weeks, starting and stopping, to get through this book due in part to the slow pacing of the book and time constraints on my end but I found myself wrapped up in the novel’s atmosphere and wanting to know what happened that summer when Liz’s uncle disappears.  The ending was unexpected, provocative, and worth the time invested reading.

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride 432 pgs. 

This is a character driven story of historical fiction that takes place in 1856 Kansas Territory. Narrated by 10 year-old slave, Henry “Onion” Shackleford, the book begins with Henry witnessing his father being killed in a shoot-out between his master and the abolitionist John Brown.  Henry is “rescued” by Brown and more or less forced to masquerade as a girl. Brown believes the boy/girl is his good luck charm, and gives her/him a feather from a Good Lord Bird (a rare and beautiful woodpecker) as a token. 

The fast-paced and thought- provoking story is told in a unique and quirky dialect, replete with some creative ‘cussin.  It' is at times hilarious and at other times sad and tragic.  I would recommend listening to this book to fully appreciate the distinctively rich dialogue.

(Winner of 2013 National Book Awards: Fiction)

Monday, January 27, 2014

& Sons

& Sons by David Gilbert 434 pgs.

Philip Topping is the son of Charlie Topping.  Charlie's best friend is Andrew Dyer, a reclusive author of a "great American novel".  Andrew has three sons of his own and is getting old.  He is mostly estranged from Richard and Jamie but 17 year old Andy still lives with him (when not at boarding school or various camps). At first you think this book is going to be about father and son relationships...and it is, but also so much more.  The book is narrated by Philip Topping and he is really quite conflicted by the Dyer family. On the one hand he wants to be in their inner circle, on the other, he sort of hates all of them and still focuses on slights from childhood. Turns out he may not be the most reliable narrator. He is also made a mess of his personal life by having an affair and losing his job. Oh yea, Andrew Dyer may be losing his mind a bit too or maybe his youngest son Andy is actually his clone and not the result of a brief affair.

New York City is another character in this book.  The various locations, sights and sounds of the city are important to the story.

I listened to the audio version of this book but also had to take a look at the print version and was surprised to see a variety of print for various sections which may have made the changes in time and setting a little easier to follow.

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Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick  273 pp.

On his eighteenth birthday Leonard Peacock plans to shoot his former best friend, Asher Beal, and then himself after giving gifts to his mother and the three people he considers his friends. Sounds depressing but, even though it's an examination of the thought processes of a highly intelligent but disturbed young man, it is an entertaining and engrossing story. Leonard is a Bogart and Shakespeare loving loner; a misfit with an absent father and a self-absorbed mother. Gradually the backstory emerges which explains Leonard's actions. It's been a long time since I stayed up late to finish a book (without falling asleep) but I couldn't put this one down.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Woke up lonely

Woke up lonely / Fiona Maazel 325 pgs.

A darkly comic novel, this book tells the story of Thurlow Dan and Esme.  It is an odd love story, neither are really ready for love yet both are craving it.  Thurlow is a cult leader...although he doesn't really think it is a cult, just a caring group.  Esme is a secret agent of sorts, working with a North Korean defector.  How these two ever hook up is kind of a mystery.  But now it is 10 years later and they are no longer together, both, however, still not happy, still looking for a different life.  I don't know how to talk about this book without giving away plot spoilers.  I found the book frustrating at times but then hard to put down.  It is an odd story of human connections or lack thereof with a little kidnapping thrown in for good measure.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Overweight Sensation

Overweight Sensation: the life and comedy of Allan Sherman / Mark Cohen 353 pgs.

I enjoyed reading about this groundbreaking comedian with whom I was not familiar.  The most important fact – Allan Sherman wrote Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh about the kid at camp!

Sherman was a great talent as a comedian but best known for his song parodies.  In the mid 60’s he released several albums that sold very well.  They came out rapidly as he seemed to be able to write parodies faster than you or I can write email.  His career started out as a TV producer/writer but always seemed to lose those jobs due to his bad work habits, missing deadlines and attendance issues.

He was most famous in the mid 1960's.  He didn't really handle fame all that well.  He lived a very unhealthy lifestyle including over eating and eventually became an alcoholic.  He did not manage his money well, wasn't a very good father or husband and spent a lot of time on the road. He died at 49 of a heart attack.

His legacy is impressive. He influenced many comedians who came after him and has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately partly due to the Mad Men television program.  Several “Best of” albums have come out in more recent years. An incredibly talented man whose life ended too soon, Allan Sherman is an interesting subject.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

King and Maxwell

King and Maxwell by David Baldacci  422 pp.

I have been a fan of Baldacci's series about former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell from the very first book (Split Second, 2003). When I heard they were making a t.v. series about the characters my first thought was, "it's going to screw up the books."  While this installment isn't awful, it is obvious that Baldacci is playing more to the show's audience than his regular readers especially when it comes to body count, major shootouts, and spectacular explosions. The author even dedicates the book to the makers of the show. The plot is not the problem. It's pretty typical thriller fodder with a soldier set up by the superiors running the top secret mission in Afghanistan that goes wrong. King and Maxwell get involved in the investigation while trying to help the soldier's teenaged son. What they uncover puts them all in danger, in multiple ways. The introduction of King's ex-wife and the reappearance of Edgar Roy (from the previous King/Maxwell novel, The Sixth Man) were nice touches. As a whole, however, this one was a bit disappointing. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Rise of Abraham Cahan / Seth Lipsky 224 p.

Abraham Cahan founded the Yiddish-language newspaper Jewish Daily Forward in 1897, having come to New York from Vilna (Vilnius), then part of Imperial Russia.  The Forward in its heyday had a national circulation of 275,000, making it one of the most influential papers of its time.  (It is still published today, weekly in English and bi-weekly in Yiddish; in fact, you can look at this week's copy right on the newspaper shelves at our own UCPL. )  Cahan and the paper he founded were vigorous advocates of trade unionism and social democracy.  In his career he interviewed Lenin and Dreyfus; Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for the paper.

I liked the man who emerged from this relatively brief portrait by Lipsky.  But in many ways this book is more a portrait of Cahan's time and place - Yiddish-speaking, lower east side New York in the first half of the 20th century - and the importance of journalism to this era, than of the man Abraham Cahan.  There's nothing wrong with this emphasis.  But when I'm reading a biography, or a quasi biography, I enjoy having a stronger sense of the person than I got here.

All that is, by James Salter

Maybe this is too much of a “literary novel” for me.  Billed as “an extraordinary literary event….a sweeping, seductive, deeply moving story of the years after World War II,” I found it unengaging and came to dislike the main character, Philip Bowman, and many of the other people who flitted in and out of the pages.  Bowman has returned from service in the South Pacific with no clear career path.  He stumbles into publishing, ultimately ending up as a well-regarded editor at a firm that specializes in (surprise!) literary fiction and the occasional money-making blockbuster.  Along the way he marries, divorces, has affairs, including with a stepdaughter, meets important people.  Then at the end of the book, he is old and reflective.  That's all that is.  OK.  It is very well-written but for me that just wasn’t enough.  289 pp.  seemed like a lot more.

The light of day, by Graham Swift

On a sunny, cool November day in 1997, George Webb is buying flowers to take to place of the grave of Bob Nash who died two years ago on this date.  Afterwards, he will visit Bob’s widow, Sarah.  So far, this sounds pretty straightforward, but over the course of the day this novel spans, we learn why Sarah is unable to make this graveside visit in person, why George is even involved, and about the intermingling of many lives and the unexpected consequences of the choices one makes.  It unfolds like a mystery.  Told entirely as an interior monologue, it is beautifully written.  Swift won the Booker Prize for Last Orders.  His Waterland is a favorite of mine, but there is much more of his work, including Last orders, that I haven’t read and I look forward to catching up.  324 pp.

Monday, January 20, 2014

No Joke: Making Jewish Humor / Ruth R. Wisse 279 p.

Not as funny as the title or the goofy cover art would have you believe.  This is actually a quite scholarly examination of the origins, nature, and functions of Jewish humor in various times and places: from 19th century Germany and central Europe, to England and the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, to WWII and Stalinism, through contemporary Israel.  Wisse explores humor's positive and negative sides, warning that too much joking is as dangerous as too little.  The concluding chapter touches on contemporary political correctness in the West.  Definitely not for a general audience; lots of literary theory here.

Five days at memorial

Five days at memorial: life and death in a storm-ravaged hospital / Shari Fink 558 pages

First of all, the cover design of this book is brilliant. When I first saw it I was disappointed because I wanted to read the book but obviously the copy that was sent to me had been water damaged...but no, that is the way it is supposed to look.  Gee, how fitting for a Hurricane Katrina story.  But my reaction was the same at least a couple of times at home when I glanced at the book and was surprised all over again by the water damage.

But enough about the great design, when you read the book you realize what was NOT well designed, and that was the response to a life threatening hurricane in New Orleans, in the hospital, in the corporate structure where the hospital fit/did not fit.  It is hard to even begin talking about the story told by the book without just marveling at the sheer number of things that have to go wrong to end up in a situation like this hospital.  The questions that arise have to do with life and death, they are not something that you can just figure will work themselves out in a crisis.  What happened at Memorial was a crisis of leadership and training as much as a crisis of medical ethics and behavior.  It is hard to decide what part of this is worse...where should you focus your shock and disbelief? In the end I can only hope that lessons were truly learned and this type of thing won't happen again.  Of course that is only wishful thinking...for that to be a reality there would have to be a change and there really isn't any evidence of that happening.

An incredibly powerful book.

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Twice a spy

Twice a spy / Keith Thomson 326 pgs.

Charlie and Drummond Clark are at it again!  This book starts two weeks after the end of "Once a spy" (for those poor in math skills, the first of the series).  To bring you up to speed.  Drummond is a high value spy who knows all the details of a super secret arms program headed by the C.I.A.  The big problem is that Drummond is now prone to forget things because of early onset Alzheimer disease.  Of course, his former employer is worried he might forget that he is supposed to keep certain facts about his cover as an appliance salesman secret.  Who knows what might come up in conversation with a guy like Drummond?  The first book gets us to the point of escape for Drummond, Charlie and Alice...the love interest/can you trust her/also an agent.  This book picks up two weeks in while on the run (they aren't even sure who all they are running from), as Charlie is getting schooled on more spy stuff and finding out here is pretty good at it.  After all of their precautions, Alice is kidnapped and held for the ransom of a special washing machine from the longtime cover company for whom Drummond worked.  Adventure ensues.  Charlie and Drummond are both trying to protect each other now and their relationship is enjoyable.  Charlie gets hints about what to do and breaks through the Alzheimer barrier by asking his dad questions about what an agent in this type of situation should consider doing now...This book is loads of fun despite the few rather hard to believe situations.  I anxiously await "Thrice a spy" that the author assures me should be out in 4 years.

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A Guide for the Perplexed: a Novel / Dara Horn 342 p.

It's pretty daring to write a novel and take as its title Maimonides' 12th century philosophical work, considered by many to be a sort of linchpin of Middle Ages philosophy for both Jews and non-Jews.
And to make that story a re-working of the biblical tale of Joseph in Egypt, persecuted by his own siblings, is quite lofty.  Throw in a lengthy sub-plot involving the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a vast repository of some 1,000 years of texts (some of it authored by Maimonides himself), and you have a Super Bowl of Jewish literary, philosophical and religious themes, all in 342 pages.

I have to be honest and say that I can't decide whether this novel is an overstuffed disaster or a slice of divine inspiration.  It's the story of Josie Ashkenazi, a hyper-brilliant software entrepreneur and inventor of the program Genizah, which collects all personal digital information and synthesizes it into a coherent whole, effectively re-creating a life.  She takes a trip to the new library at Alexandria, Egypt, at the request of scholars there, only to be kidnapped.  She leaves behind her husband, daughter, and ever-jealous sister Judith, who may or may not provide the keys to her rescue.  Josie's story alternates with that of Solomon Schechter, a Cambridge scholar on the hunt for a cache of medieval documents in a Cairo synagogue.  (That would be the literal Genizah.)

This was quite suspenseful and well structured.  I just don't know whether it's good.  Read it and decide for yourself!  (And if you could do it before 8 am on Friday, that would be terrific.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, by Evan Roskos, 320 pages

James deals with depression and anxiety, but reading Walt Whitman and hugging trees usually helps him feel better.  Talking to Dr. Bird, a pigeon who moonlights as a therapist and largely lives in his head also helps him deal, especially after his parents kick his older sister, Jorie, out of the house for being expelled from school.  Jorie has fought with their mother and father (known as the Banshee and the Brute, respectively) pretty regularly, but kicking her out was unexpected, and James is determined to find a way for her to come back.  In the midst of all of this, Beth, a girl James likes, starts talking to him, mostly to see if he can find a piece Jorie was working on for the school's literary magazine, and they strike up a friendship.  But as James digs further into the hows and whys of Jorie's expulsion, he finds that his problems are just as big as Jorie's, and that their methods of coping with their difficult family life may be different, but can lead to the same results.

I feel that in order to fully understand James and his voice, it might be good to be familiar with Walt Whitman's poetry; at the very least, you should know what a yawp is.  Despite not being familiar with any of that, I still enjoyed the story.  James, even in the midst of depression, tells his story with an almost manic quality, making parts of the story funnier than they probably should be (though his friend Derek's love life is pretty hilarious).  His determination to always find something to celebrate is wonderful, and even though he hits a pretty low point, he's able to come back from it and find the help and closure he needs to move on and make his life better.  A good read for anyone who likes quirky characters.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Challenge.)

Sex and Violence

Sex and Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian, 304 pages

Evan has no problem picking up girls.  He's got it down to a science, able to identify the girls who would be willing to go all the way just by looking at them.  And since his father has a tendency to pick up both their lives and move them at a moment's notice without asking Evan's opinion first, he usually doesn't have to deal with any fallout.  But that changes when Collette, the sort-of ex of his boarding school roommate shows an interest in him (and, of course, he in her).  While they manage to do everything-but, his roommate and his buddy decide that's more than enough and brutally attack Evan as he's getting out of the shower.  Afterwards, Evan's father moves them to the Pearl Lake, Minnesota house that his father grew up in just as summer starts.  As Evan deals with the aftermath of what happened to him and the behavior that led him there, he manages to make new friends, works on his relationship with his father, and even figures out how to have actual relationships with girls, not just physical ones.

What I liked about this book was Evan's voice.  Carrie Mesrobian gives him a fairly distinct voice, making him fully aware of how his behavior isn't great.  It's not the attack that makes him realize this; he's known that for awhile, but the attack makes him examine that more and make him work on changing his ways.  And it's also refreshing to see that his behavior doesn't stem totally from misogyny, but more because it's easier for him to relate to girls in a purely physical way.  But I feel like not a whole lot got resolved by the end of the story.  Evan does get past some of the problems that directly stem from the attack, but Mesrobian spends a lot of time making you think he's headed for some meaningful romance with the girl who lives next door before putting him with someone we don't even meet until there's roughly 50 pages left in the story.  But other than that, Sex and Violence is a good story with a compelling main character.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Challenge.)
Charm and Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn, 216 pages

Win Winters is certain he will change.  He can feel it in his bones, a certainty that he's felt every time the moon waxes towards full, but it never manifests, frustrating him, and starting the countdown to the next full moon yet again.  But when he accompanies a new student, Jordan, to the weekly party in the woods outside of his posh boarding school, he finds himself remembering the fateful summer he turned ten and the events that took place that led him to a broken family and the issues he has been barely dealing with since.

I went into this book not sure what to expect, or even really sure what it was about.  The info on the inside flap didn't give me much more to work with, only the hint that something awful had happened to Win, and that the story would deal with it.  But as I read, I realized I was okay with the lack of knowledge, willing to let Win tell his story.  Told in alternating chapters, Win reconnects with his former roommate and friend, Lex, who knows some of Win's backstory, after going with new girl Jordan to the party in the woods.  Lex has some healthy skepticism about Win's belief that he will change, but as Win remembers that summer when he was ten, it becomes clear that Win believes this as a way to cope with what really happened to him and his brother and sister, and how that caused them to make a pretty drastic and horrible decision.  This is definitely one of those books that should come with a trigger warning (if you are at all familiar with that phrase and what types of things it precedes, that should give you an idea of what we're dealing with), and like those books, the story is more about Win coming to some sort of revelation that will help him move on, but doesn't focus too much on the aftermath.  Definitely a story that deals with some heavy issues, and not for everyone.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Challenge.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Walking Dead (Books 1-7)

Walking Dead (Books 1-7), by Robert Kirkman
2128 pages

It's disconcerting to hear people rave about how good something is, only to see for yourself that it's so... "meh".  Pretty early on in The Walking Dead  graphic novel series, I realized that I was totally unmoved by what I was reading.  I started to wonder what I was missing or whether I was just dull, considering the books are so popular.  As it turns out, everyone else CAN be wrong, there is nothing wrong with me!

Most of the pages are taken up by pictures - well drawn pictures to be sure - rather than actual reading, and so continuing on in the hopes that it would get better didn't come at a huge cost in terms of time or energy.  But enough is enough; I've given it more than a fair shot.  This series is monotonous, horribly paced, repetitive, and not nearly as trenchant in it's ethical conundrums and reflections as it believes or wishes itself to be.

The books have two modes: "talk your head off" mode and "stab zombies in the head" mode, and both get old really quick.  When the characters are speaking I'm overcome with this desire to explain to them how much I don't care.

If you want to check the series out for yourself, I suppose the easy way would be to read book one, and then mentally multiply what you've just read so that you'll know what happens in subsequent volumes, with very little deviation.

I should point out that I watch and like the television series that's based on the Walking Dead graphic novels, and I picked up these books to fill the void between the AMAZING season 4 mid-season finale, and the show's return in February.  The show is different enough from the comics that the two don't give each other's plots away very often, but the show does not suffer from the same flaws as those I've expressed with regard to the comic series.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Happier Endings: a Meditation on Life and Death / Erica Brown 340 pp.

The subtitle sums this up; these are primarily personal musings and interactions rather than in-depth research.  Brown looks at funeral practices in different cultures, the commercial funeral industry, hospice and end-of-life care, and grieving, among other things.  Her information and anecdotes are interesting but the content and organization are scattershot and the writing style uneven.  She veers from emotional seriousness to quippy jokes a la Mary Roach in a way that is off-putting rather than amusing. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel / Ari Shavit 445pages

It's impossible to evaluate this book without considering this year's other historical survey-type book of Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi's Like Dreamers. Shavit takes an earlier starting point, a visit by his great-grandfather to 1897 Palestine which led him move his prosperous Jewish-English family there. In separate chapters, Shavit chronicles major trends in the state's history from the points of view of both key players and ordinary people: "Orange Grove," "Masada," and "The Project" (referring to the development of nuclear weapons capacity in the Negev) are a few. Shavit is a columnist for Haaretz, and one gathers given the access to extremely prominent figures he clearly possesses, one of the country's most prominent journalists. The writing style is journalistic and somewhat personal; in fact, many of the chapters were first published as long magazine pieces in Israel and elsewhere, including in the New Yorker.

Shavit is a subtle thinker who makes a point of straddling lines, taking positions which are not exactly left or right, hawk or dove. His most firm point is that occupation is wrong for moral and practical reasons, but that ending occupation will not bring peace. For Shavit, Israeli security lies neither in expanding the territories with settlements, nor in pursuing a utopian peace. Rather, it consists in a return to the cohesion and commitment of the country's early decades and in a courageous leadership. Very fresh material; the chapter on Iran considers quite recent developments.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Shavit's analyses, as a book-length work I find Klein Halevi's book to be superior. I found myself thinking of the difference between showing and telling: Shavit told us many things about Israel; through the lives of the seven individual paratroopers in Like Dreamers, Klein Halevi showed us more.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Ode to Salonika: the Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty / Renee Levine Melammed 308 pp.

This was a pleasant surprise.  I'll share a definition of Ladino, only because I didn't know what it was before I read this title: a nearly extinct Romance language with elements borrowed from Hebrew that is spoken by Sephardic Jews esp. in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Near East. (Webster's)  Sarfatty grew up in the Sephardic community in Salonika, whose roots are traced back to Spain at the time of the expulsion of the Jews in the 15th century.  She was imprisoned during WWII, escaped, and worked as a partisan to free others.  During and after the war she chronicled the history of her community by writing approximately 500 coplas, a form of Ladino poetry.  The book contains chapters of explication, in which Melammed provides both Sarfatty's personal history and the history of her community.  Then we get to see the complete collection of her coplas, both in Ladino and translated into English.  As Melammed points out, Sarfatty's coplas would not be considered high art, but they provide an amazing amount of information in an intimate and immediate way.  Really fascinating.

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  771 pp.

This is a long book which seems even longer when you listen to the audio version (26 discs). Theo Decker was twelve when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at a museum. Theo survives the blast with a concussion but leaves the museum with a famous and highly prized 17th century painting of a goldfinch by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.  That one event leads Theo into a life of missteps, alcohol, drugs, theft, high class antique dealing, forgery, blackmail, violence, love, and a friendship with a street smart Ukrainian named Boris. This is the first book by Tartt that I have read. I understand why she has so many fans. This is a well crafted and well written novel. However, I feel Theo waxing philosophical at the end was anticlimactic.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Honor Thy Thug by Wahida Clark p. 320

This book is just more of everyone's drama. Trae gets involved with the illegal organization run by the father of the woman he cheated on his wife with. Faheem and Jaz are having problems because Jaz wants to help him get revenge for the death of his son. Angel and Kaylin are kidnapped. Kyra and Rick want to be together but he has another situation. More drama.

Once again, another entertaining book, in a soap opera kind of way. Kills brain cells though. You have to read a newspaper or something after reading these books.

Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark p. 352

Drama, drama, drama. The books in the "Thug" series are full of drama. So much happens in this book. Tasha and Trae's marriage is in trouble because Trae cheated on Tasha. Tasha is going to divorce Trae and she begins a rebound situation with his best friends brother. Faheem and Jaz also have some marital issues due to a lack of trust. Kyra has been missing for a long time and they finally find her daughter. Rick pops back up after they thought he was dead. This book is packed with drama.

I've read this book before but I forgot most of what happened. She published a new book in the series so I wanted to freshen my memory. It was entertaining. Would I recommend it, no. Not unless you want to lose brain cells.

Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah p. 544

Winter Santiaga was raised in Brooklyn projects but in luxury. Her father is a drug lord and provides his family with whatever they want. The inside of their house doesn't resemble project housing at all. They have all the new clothes and expensive jewels. However, she's shielded, as much as she can be, from what her father does. All she knows is there is lots of money for her to spend and her father, Santiaga, won't let anyone disrespect his family. Of course, things like this don't last forever, and when the police come, their world falls apart. Since she's been shielded from so much, she doesn't know what to do.

This is my fifth or sixth time reading this book. Every other time I've read it, I was a teenager. I may have read it once as in my early twenties. This time, when I read it, with the knowledge that I now have, it made me feel differently. I still liked the book, probably even more than I did before. But this time, I got the message. Sister Souljah is not glorifying selling drugs and street life. When you're younger, having clothes and being cool is everything. When you get older you realize that none of that matters. Winter had no common sense. She didn't think school was important so she didn't go. She thought using her body would get her everything she wanted. Reading this book made me feel so embarrassed for her. However, as I said, there are messages the reader can get from reading this book. I would recommend this book.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King 544 pgs.

From Publishers Weekly:
Iconic horror author King picks up the narrative threads of The Shining many years on. Young psychic Danny Torrance has become a middle-aged alcoholic (he now goes by “Dan”), bearing his powers and his guilt as equal burdens. A lucky break gets him a job in a hospice in a small New England town. Using his abilities to ease the passing of the terminally ill, he remains blissfully unaware of the actions of the True Knot, a caravan of human parasites crisscrossing the map in their RVs as they search for children with “the shining” (psychic abilities of the kind that Dan possesses), upon whom they feed. When a girl named Abra Stone is born with powers that dwarf Dan’s, she attracts the attention of the True Knot’s leader—the predatory Rose the Hat. Dan is forced to help Abra confront the Knot, and face his own lingering demons. Less terrifying than its famous predecessor, perhaps because of the author’s obvious affection for even the most repellant characters, King’s latest is still a gripping, taut read that provides a satisfying conclusion to Danny Torrance’s story. 

I listened to the audio version of this book, read brilliantly by Will Patton.  I was only familiar with the two movie versions of The Shining, but was told that I MUST read/listen to the book. Advance apologies to my co-workers if I come in to work slightly traumatized from listening to this story on my commute to work. . .

Goodreads Choice Awards: 2013

New York Times Notable Books - Fiction and Poetry: 2013

The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen 373 pgs.

From Booklist:

Gift or curse, the magic of the Van Ripper family is in the knitting—so the residents of Tarrytown, New York, speculate. Van Allen knits together this pleasantly entertaining tale as easily as the Van Ripper women knit together the often unraveling threads of people’s lives. When matriarch Mariah Van Ripper’s death reunites her three nieces—awkwardly shy Aubrey; cynical, uptight Bitty; and free-spirit Meggie—together they must decide how far they will go in order to preserve the Stitchery’s secrets. The Stitchery, their ancestral home, located in contemporary Rip Van Winkle territory, has housed generations of Van Ripper women, whose gift for magic is intimately tied in with the beautiful items they knit. Casting spells on and off with the clicks of their needles, the sisters contend with the wishes and wants of others as well as their own deepest desires. Chick-lit cozy meets magical realism with inevitably warm and fuzzy results. -- Flanagan, Margaret (Reviewed 08-01-2013) (Booklist, vol 109, number 22, p33)

Highly recommended for fans of Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells, Sugar Queen) or Aimee Benders The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Belle Epoque, by Elizabeth Ross, 336 pages

Maude Pichon, desperate to leave behind her small French town and her father's plans to marry her off to the butcher, runs away to Paris to start a new life.  With Eiffel building his tower and the bohemians holding wild parties and creating art, Maude is determined to carve out a better life for herself than she could have if she had stayed put.  But living in Paris costs money, so she answers an ad for the Durandeau Agency, which offers a specialized service - the beauty foil, a plain or unattractive woman, hired by a woman of the upper class to make herself look better by comparison.  Mortified by the details of the job, Maude leaves, but soon returns because the pay is too good and the job doesn't require lots of physical labor.  She ends up being contracted to work for the Countess Dubern, who hires Maude for her daughter, Isabelle, who is about to start her first season as a debutante.  Isabelle doesn't know that Maude is hired help, and they soon develop a real friendship.  Unfortunately, Countess Dubern is only concerned with Isabelle getting engaged as quickly as possible, and uses Maude to keep tabs on her daughter's chances with several eligible young men and to push Isabelle towards marriage, something Maude knows Isabelle doesn't want.  Soon she is caught between the two and must decide where her loyalty lies.

One thing I really liked about this book is the idea of the beauty foil.  This seems like a modern concept, but it fits perfectly with the late 1800s time period of Belle Epoque France.  While the poor continued to be poor, the upper class carried on, going to the opera, musical recitals, and other pursuits that required money.  Hiring someone who might not fit the standard of beauty at the time to make yourself look better seems like the kind of thing rich society women with money to burn would do.  But my one complaint is that I wish the book was longer - not because the story was so good that I wished it didn't end, but because the dual role that Maude was playing (friend to Isabelle, spy for her mother) didn't have enough time to really come together for me, making the inevitable reveal not nearly as powerful as the tagline on the cover might suggest.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Challenge)