Monday, March 31, 2014

Flora and Ulysses: the illuminated adventures by Kate di Camillo illustrated by K. G. Campbell 231 pages 9780763660406

This year's Newbery winner has a most unusual beginning. A squirrel is sucked into a vacuum cleaner, a Ulysses Super Suction vacuum cleaner. Flora springs to his rescue and performs CPR on the stunned critter. After he returns to consciousness, he discovers a yearning to create poetry. This is the most remarkable friendship since Fern resolved to save Wilbur in Charlotte's Web. Flora desperately needs a little magic in her life. Her parents are splitting up and her mother is one of the least likeable mothers in the canon of children's literature.She concocts a plan to have Flora's father murder Ulysses in a pillow case with a hammer. Let me reassure you, that does not happen. There is a bit of Roald Dahl mixed in with this saga. Flora resolves to be a cynic with a tough heart that can not be beaten by her mother. Flora names Ulysses after a comic book superhero and this little squirrel does have a heart of a hero.The audio version of this read by Tara Sands is lovely and the way I experienced this story; however, the illustrations with bits and pieces of a graphic novel format will also be enjoyed by young readers..

Beans on the Roof by Betsy Byars 63 pages 0385298552

Anna Bean finds temporary refuge from her boisterous family on the roof of her apartment building.Her younger siblings resent yet another special privilege for the oldest child in the family. Mrs. Bean has granted this dispensation because Anna is trying to compose a poem. This is an important assignment because if it wins the school contest it will be printed in a book. Each Bean family member composes a Bean poem.A tender story about a family short on money but rich in love.This brief story radiates family joy. A perfect story for a parent to read at bedtime or a teacher to a classroom.Betsy Byars has written many books and won several major awards (including the Newbery), but this is my favorite.

The Boss / Victoria Chang 46pp.

I didn't know - or had forgotten - just how well a small book of poetry can communicate things that other writing can't.  The Boss is an actual boss - Chang's own, or someone very like her.  The Boss is her father, now laid low by dementia but once a company man with authority.  The Boss is offstage in the Edward Hopper paintings Chang reflects on in other lines.  And the Boss is something fuzzier but no less disturbing in the occasional pieces on catastrophes such as 9/11 and the Joplin tornado.  Tight consistency of rhythm and structure make this a brief, sharp, power punch.  Very worthwhile.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Winter People

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon  336 pp.

This is a good creepy story that covers a century of multiple generations of a family that lived on a small New England farm. A strange rock formation called "The Devil's Hand" is the centerpiece of the odd goings on along with a book written by a former resident Sarah Harrison Shea. Strange deaths and the existence of a "Sleeper", an undead little girl named Gertie is involved in the creepy happenings. I don't want to say too much because of spoilers. I found the story intriguing and spooky but was somewhat disappointed in the ending. It seemed to lose momentum during the modern day sections.

Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark / Nick Bertozzi 136 pgs.

A graphic novel version of the Lewis & Clarks' western expedition that took a small team of explorers from St. Louis to the Pacific ocean and back.  Unlike the thin glossy story that you hear in primary grade history courses, the group had many hard times and problems along the way but they also did great work bringing back samples, dealing with natives along the way and surviving!  It is hard to believe how tough it was for them and how much they learned about our growing country.  Theirs was a special commission by President Jefferson and they fulfilled their mission.

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How to wake up

How to wake up: a Buddhist-inspired guide to navigating joy and sorrow by Toni Bernhard 231 pgs.

I read Toni's first book How to be sick when it came out in 2011 and was excited to hear that she had written another.  This one is, perhaps, even more powerful because there is no question that everyone can relate to joy and sorrow in life.  Each chapter is short but provides a solid method with examples to be a better person and lead a fuller more satisfying life.  If any part of it seems too optimistic, the author provides personal examples of where she has failed in the past and how she coped with the failure.  One of my favorites is just deciding that is is OK to fail occasionally.  YES!  Even at our best, we are never perfect and it is ok, give yourself a break and move on.  As always, the lessons here are abundant, helpful and will lead to a better life if practiced.  I'm already looking forward to Bernhard's next book.

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Pronto by Elmore Leonard, 386 pages.
The late Elmore Leonard is, or I guess, was one of my favorite crime writers. There's not a book of his that stands out to me as the best of all time or anything, but they are all very well crafted, with satisfying plots, and complicated characters who face unexpected situations. None of Leonard's characters have single motivating characteristics; they are all dealing with complex situations from viewpoints that are theirs alone, and everything that happens is colored by their perceptions and mis-perceptions.
Pronto is the first book that Leonard wrote featuring the now famous character of Raylan Givens. Raylan in the book is similar to the character of the same name in the FX series, Justified, but there are some differences. The gunfight that launches the TV series is here, but it's different. Raylan Givens in the book is older, not quite as charismatic, and comes across as not quite as clever. A good read for fans of Leonard, the TV series, or crime fiction in general.
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Friday, March 28, 2014

Cool Japan By Sumiko Kajiyama

Cool Japan is not your run of the mill travel guide. It's much more; a compact user's manual for all things Japanese. Part history book, part travel guide and part cultural study it perfectly sets aside the veneer of this mysterious land.

This ambitious guide covers a lot of ground, moving from The Tale of Genji to sightseeing boats, fish markets, the newest restaurants and popular folktales.

The journey keeps the reader on pace with a rhythm that is neither too rapid or too plodding. From the onset it is clear that Japan is a magical and mystical place with a potentially challenging array of things to do.

Zigzagging from the traditional Japan of the past to the bustling cities of the present, Kajiyama breaks down the daunting task of seeing everything the country has to offer by focusing primarily on the cities of  Tokyo and Kyoto and then kicking it back in the culturally rich region of Tohoku.

In doing this we walk in the footsteps of the poet  Matsuo Basho, bask in the serenity of the temples, parks and serene spaces of Kyoto and absorb the art and architecture of Tokyo while getting schooled in anime and other popular culture.

 Cool Japan also provides historical context for understanding the art, literature, economics and spiritual identity of a culture that never slows down. Thus visitors with the right moxie become engrossed in a pilgrimage which allows them to see a side of the country lost to big tours, packed buses and aimless wanderers.

Supplemented with plenty of pictures and short vignettes for understanding the historical and cultural significance, Kajiyama's guide doesn't get bogged town with a lot of touristy mumbo jumbo. Instead his book opts for the more direct approach of recommending sites, sounds and foods that capture the very essence of historical, classical and popular Japan.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

That part was true, by Deborah McKinlay

A charming short book that involves elements of a cozy English and/or cooking mystery, although it is not a mystery, and an epistolary novel.  Eve lives alone in her lovely home in rural England now that her rather difficult mother has died.  Her husband decamped after a short marriage and the birth of one daughter, Izzy.  Izzy, like her grandmother, who was largely responsible for raising her, is a disconcertingly capable person who rather intimidates her more introverted mother.  Now Izzy is engaged and Eve must cope with being a decisive mother-of-the-bride, a role for which she is ill suited.  Not to mention it means the reappearance of Izzy’s father (and a couple of second families) in both their lives.  On a whim, Eve has dropped a short appreciative note to Jack, Jackson Cooper that is, the American author of a best-selling series of action-packed mystery novels.  His second wife has just left him (for another woman) and available single women are beginning to circle over him.  His fiftieth birthday looms.  Thus begins a correspondence between Eve and Jack about books and cooking that will change both of their lives.   Read it in one sitting.  228 pp.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Simplify your life

Simplify your life: 100 ways to slow down and enjoy the things that really matter / Elaine St. James 238 pgs.

I picked up a copy of this off our sale shelf and am glad that I did.  Although a few of these suggestions are funny because they are a bit dated (get rid of your car phone), all of the principles apply.  Elaine and her husband decided to "right size" and simplify and have never been happier.  In several places, she really shows how complications feed off each other...If your house is too big, you can no longer clean it yourself so you get a cleaning service and then you have to schedule them and pay them. You have now cluttered your life in a new way.  If you had a smaller house and less stuff, you could just do it yourself.  As a tribute to the author, I'm donating this book back to the library.  I really need to avoid the clutter.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial

How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial
by Darryl Cunningham
172 Pages

The next time someone says, "If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are monkeys still around?", take a moment to wince and face-palm, and then kindly refer them to this book; the author does a fantastic job of simplifying and providing clear summaries of the biggest "controversies" of our time, and there are nice pictures, too!  The term "controversy" is used loosely, because, as the author points out, much of what occurs in the public dialogue is faux debate, heavily influenced by moneyed interest groups, as is the case with think tanks who claim climate change either isn't real or isn't man made, while not being called out for taking money from oil companies.  Even more crucially, the media tends to give the same credibility to an ideological stance and/or opinion as it does to fact-based scientific evidence, thereby legitimizing uninformed and often disingenuous talking points.

Not as acerbic in tone as I might make it out to be, this book is an entertaining reaction to the general trend in society of throwing critical thinking by the wayside and refusing to recognize evidence that challenges one's assumptions and world view.  

The People Could Fly: The Picture Book

The People Could Fly:  The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton  40 pgs.

As I was reading The Invention of Wings (see below),  this children's book caught my eye.  This version of an American Black folktale in which Africans had the magical ability to fly but then had to shed their wings as they were being transported aboard slavery ships lends itself to the title and some of the motifs of Sue Monk Kidd's novel.  "The People Could Fly" was first published in 1985 as one of 24 tales in Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly:  American Black Folktales. The picture book was published in 2004 with all-new illustrations by the same artists who illustrated the original collections as a tribute to the author, after her death in 2002.
The rich illustrations add a colorful detail to this somber and uplifting fantasy tale of suffering, of magic power and of a spirit of wish-fulfillment.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The execution of Noa P. Singleton

The execution of Noa P. Singleton / Elizabeth L. Silver 310 pgs.

Noa P. Singleton is on death row but the mother of the girl she murdered (who is a powerful lawyer) says she has had a change of heart and will try to save Noa's life.  The death penalty carried out will not bring back her daughter and it seems wrong to her 10 years later.  This novel is told in sections leading up to the execution date starting 5 months out.  Many chapters are flashbacks and memories of how Noa ended up where she is...waiting to die.  It is obvious early on that there is more to the story than meets the eye.  As it all unfolds, you are thinking this could be the greatest book you ever read. Then when it is done, you realize it didn't meet that mark but still interesting and well written.  Since I could not come up with a better ending, I'm not trying to dis the author, I just wish she could have come up with something that equaled the hype that developed as I read the story.

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A tale for the time being

A tale for the time being / Ruth Ozeki 422 pgs.

This is a really beautiful novel with epistolary elements between two authors...Nao is a young Japanese girl who is going through some "issues".  She has recently relocated to Japan after her dad was laid off from his job in Silicon Valley.  She has few friends and is actively bullied by her peers in Japan.  We know about this because Ruth, an author living on a small Canadian island finds her diary and other documents when they wash ashore. Ruth and Nao start a "relationship" based on Nao's writing and Ruth's reading.  It is interesting to follow Ruth's thoughts as she reads.  There are a couple of other important characters.  Ruth's husband Oliver (and their pesky cat), Nao's father who attempts suicide several times, Nao's granny who is 104 and a Buddhist nun and Haruki #1, Nao's great uncle who died in the war.  Many of the characters never meet but know each other through the written word and stories from other characters. It is not easy to explain the attraction to this story because the relationships are not easily explained but take the time to explore this book.

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd  384 pgs.

Set within a South Carolina plantation this moving and character driven story begins on Sarah Grimk√©’s 11th birthday in 1803; her father’s gift to her is her own slave, ten-year-old Hetty (also known as Handful). Grimk√© was a real historical figure (a fact that I did not realize until I was almost finished with the book) who went on to become an abolitionist and a crusader for women’s rights--in large part because of her experiences with her family’s slaves. Told in first person, the chapters alternate between the two main characters’ perspectives. The author intertwines fact and fiction as she explores the evolving unlikely friendship from childhood to middle age between Sarah and Handful and the ways the two women come into their own.

Just kids, by Patti Smith

This is the book that Patti Smith promised Robert Mapplethorpe she would write about their time together.  He died in 1989 of AIDS.  They met as “just kids” making their way in New York.  Patti wanted to be a poet, Robert an artist.  Living together from hand to mouth in the legendary Chelsea – next door to where Dylan Thomas died, down the hall from William Burroughs, hanging out in the lobby with Janis Joplin, they explored both their art and their sexuality, with Robert hustling for money and discovering that he was homosexual.  But that, and the presence of other partners, didn’t break their bond for many years.  In fact, it has endured even after his death. Reading like a Hall of Fame of 1970’s rock and roll, it is a fascinating journey for both of them.  Patti discovers performance as well as writing, Robert picks up a camera.  The rest is history.  300 pp.

Golden Boy

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, 352 pages
A 2014 Alex Award Winner

To look at him, you might think Max Walker has it all - handsome, popular, and well-liked, he's the kind of person who manages to move through life without many problems. But Max and his family are hiding something - Max is intersex, meaning he is physically both male and female. This has never really bothered him (though the thought of going farther than making out with a girl terrifies him), but when he is raped by Hunter, his so-close-everyone-calls-them-cousins friend, he finds himself torn over who he is. It doesn't help that his father decides to run for Parliament, making the ensuing fallout from his sexual assault even more difficult, as old arguments and hurts come to the fore again. And then there's Sylvie - kooky, beautiful Sylvie, who Max really likes, but feels certain that she'll run screaming from him if she finds out what he really is.

I really loved this book. Abigail Tarttelin weaves an intriguing story that, at its heart, is about identity, and how that basic knowledge of self - man or woman - can be turned upside down when your outsides don't match your insides. And since it's told from multiple points of view, we see everyone's innermost thoughts: from Archie, the local general practitioner determined to give Max all the information he needs, to his little brother, Daniel, full of concern for what's going on with Max, but upset that he's not around as much as he usually is, to his mother, Karen, who, despite her seemingly perfect, managing-it-all facade, fully realizes that she is not up to the task of dealing with what could happen if Max doesn't outwardly conform to a binary, "normal", gender identity. It's a riveting novel that, even when it takes some obvious turns, still managed to keep me interested and invested. It's not a book I think I would have picked up on my own if I hadn't read it for YALSA's Hub Challenge, but I'm glad I did.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Brotherhood of Fear / Paul Grossman 312 p.

If you're going to take the trouble to write a mystery novel, develop an interesting, believable main character (Inspector Willi Kraus of the Berlin police, a refugee from the Nazis in a vividly-imagined 1930s Paris) and craft a complex, cynical plot that's well-paced and engaging, then the least you could do before publishing it is proofread it. Otherwise, you might annoy the stink out of your reader. She might scream aloud when she's forced to read 'evidentally' not once, but twice. When you write 'repel' when you mean 'rappel' she might toss the book to the floor and crack the spine. Apalling, domicle, financeer, and unimanigable will have her swearing to get her money back from the publisher (St Martin's), except that it was checked out for free from the library.

And the French! Mon dieu! Being unable to write in French is no crime, but as Dirty Harry once said, "a man's gotta know his limitations." Why pepper the text with French when you obviously dropped it in the second semester of college? I'd wager you could walk into any Starbuck's in Manhattan and find someone both qualified to edit those portions of the text and unemployed, too.
As much as I enjoyed Willi, to future volumes in this series I will have to say 'non.'

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas / P.G. Wodehouse 248 pgs.

Reginald Swithin (Earl of Havershot) is dispatched to America to save his cousin Eggy from marrying a gold-digger.  He, in turn, meets famous actress April June on the train and falls in love.  He attends a party at her house and is ready to propose until a toothache lays him out and he leaves for a dentist appointment.  In the waiting room, he meets Joey Cooley, the 12 year old movie star who is the "darling of American mothers".  Somehow Reggie and Joey get laughing gas at the same time and wake up in each other's bodies.  As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.  Turns out sweet little Joey is living in a type of golden cage where his movement is restricted and he is denied typical 12 year old pleasures like candy and cash.  Joey is excited to find himself in a fit 28 year old body and decides to pay back several of his tormentors with a "poke in the snoot".  While Reggie, trapped in Joey's body is harassed by other child stars and his minder, Miss Brinkmeyer, he is also trying to save his true love April June from getting the punch from the real Joey who is in his body. In the end, all is revealed and true love wins out.  I had never read a Wodehouse book before that was based on a "magical" event. So much of this story was predictable but in the best way of the usual hilarious turn of a phrase and sometimes unpleasant revelations for example when Reggie sees himself outside of his body, he realizes he has a face like a gorilla and that any girl would be crazy to love him.

Great stuff.  I listened to the audio and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The Credition Killings

The Credition Killings: A Knights Templar Mystery by Michael Jecks  386 pp.

In 14th century England, a band of unruly mercenaries has descended on the town of Credition. When someone steals silver from Sir Hector, the leader of the mercenaries, Sir Baldwin Furnshill and his assistant begin investigating. Suspicion falls on the newest member of the band and the young man is arrested. A young barmaid is found dead and the thief is blamed until a beggar woman is also murdered while he was in custody. Soon a relationship between the dead women and Sir Hector is revealed and suspicion falls back on him. I enjoy mysteries set in medieval times but this one was rather bland and disappointing. I doubt I'll continue with this series.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley 416 pp.

For those, like me, who enjoy and old fashioned English whodunit, this book is perfect. Young Flavia de Luce lives in a manor house with her family of eccentrics, a reclusive father and two older sisters. Her adventurer mother died years earlier during a mountain climbing expedition. Flavia is a budding young chemist with a predilection for poisons who inserts herself into the mystery with tenacity. The rest of the household includes a cook/housekeeper and the gardner.

When a dead bird with a postage stamp stuck on its beak is left on the doorstep, Flavia is intrigued and must investigate. Things take a serious turn when she later finds a man dying in their cucumber patch. In true British style the mystery has many facets inclucing a decades old death at a boys' school, the theft of valuable stamps, an amateur magician, and blackmail. When her father is arrested for murdering the stranger in the garden Flavia goes into high gear to find out the truth behind it all. This book is great fun and I'm happy to have found a new mystery series.

The Dalai Lama's Cat

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie  240 pp.

This charming little book is written from the point of view of a Himalayan kitty who, as a small kitten, was rescued from certain death by the Dalai Lama's staff. She becomes affectionately known as HHC (His Holiness' Cat) and spends most of her time around His Holiness, his staff, and a string of prominent and not so prominent visitors. She also earns a place of respect in the town near the monastery where she frequents a cafe run by an American.
As the "bodhicatva" she sits in on many spiritual conversations and relates many of the most important bits of Buddhist thought. She also strives to live up to her title of HHC by applying them to her own life. There is a sequel The Dalai Lama's Cat and the Art of Purring.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart

Gary (nee Igor) Shteyngart was born in 1972 the former Soviet Union and spent the first years of his life with his parents in Leningrad.  When Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate in the late 1970s, his family left and ended up in Queens.  There the former Igor – the name was too reminiscent of Frankenstein – finds life among the former enemy difficult.  The religiously unobservant Gary fits in poorly in a Jewish school, struggles with English and Hebrew, practically dies of asthma, and feels himself the “Little Failure” that is his mother’s diminutive for him.  Although I have been unable to read any of his three very well-reviewed novels, this is a marvelous memoir of someone who only in adulthood begins to understand his parents, his unique life, and feel less of a misfit at everything.  Sad, hilarious, and moving.  350 pp.

The headmaster's wife, by Thomas Christoper Greene

When Arthur Winthrop sheds his clothes one winter morning in Central Park and is picked up by the police, his tale begins to unfold.  Annoyingly at first, it seems like an all-too-worn tale of a late middle-aged professor falling obsessively in love with an eighteen year old student.  Arthur, like his father before him, is headmaster at a prestigious private prep school in New England.  The object of his attentions is Betsy Pappas, a poor girl on scholarship.  She shows up in his literature class, which he has returned to teaching each semester on the advice of his Board.  Estranged from his wife, Elizabeth, who seems to have her own problems, he begins a one-sided affair with Betsy.  But as the story develops, it becomes obvious that much more is going on.  A well done combination of a mystery and an exploration of love and the choices that come to define us.  277 pp.