Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Heist

The Heist by Daniel Silva 475 pp.

This is the latest installment in the Gabriel Allon series. Once again the Mossad agent/art restorer is busy restoring a masterpiece in Venice when his work is interrupted with espionage duties. The murder of a man well known for trading in stolen artwork is found brutally murdered and the Italian Art Police want Allon's help in finding a missing Caravaggio. The art investigation soon leads into tracking billions of dollars used to fund the Syrian civil war. Allon uses staff and resources of "the office" to mastermind a plan to steal the money. In the meantime Allon and his wife are awaiting the arrival of twins and Gabriel moving into his new position as the head of Mossad. The usual cast of characters play parts in the story although Ari Shamron only makes a brief appearance. This is one of my favorite series but I'm apprehensive about the next book to come because the beloved character of Shamron is failing in health and may not be part of the series much longer. But I know by the time the next one arrives I will be eager to read it.


Middlemarch by George Eliot, 827 pages

For those of you not already reading Middlemarch in our adult summer reading program, Middlemarch is a fictional town set in the English countryside in the early-ish 1800s and focuses on some of the more well to do families that live there. We first meet Dorothea Brooke, a young woman with the lofty goal of learning and making life better for those around her, but decides to do that by marrying Mr. Casaubon, a man almost three times her age. Then there is Fred Vincy, at the crossroads of his life: in love with his childhood friend, Mary Garth, but bent towards self-destruction through gambling and idleness. And then there is Tertius Lydgate, a doctor who moves to Middlemarch with the plan of bringing a new practice of medicine to the masses, and with the equally lofty goal of making some new scientific breakthrough. Of course, there are many characters I'm leaving out (Will Ladislaw, Rosamond Vincy, Nicholas Bulstrode, Peter Featherstone, Camden Farebrother...), but most of the action revolves around these three. We've spent a lot of time discussing how this book is considered a staggering work of genius, and while I'm not sure I can speak to that, I can recognize why it's considered a classic. Eliot manages to juggle all of these characters and their pains and dreams and suffering without dropping the ball with any of them. With a narrator's eye view of each of these characters, she manages to inspire pity and sympathy for some of the more awful ones (see our summer reading blog for more on that). And though her writing tends toward the analytical, I still managed to find myself sucked into what would happen - if Dorothea would ever realize that she loved Will, if Lydgate would ever manage to out connive his wife, if Fred would ever pull his life together to make it with Mary. Many in our discussions on the book have mentioned that they feel the need to reread this book, and I agree (though I definitely want to read it in print and not as an ebook). If you're a fan of Victorian novels, but haven't read this one yet, go for it! And join us in August for our last discussion and tell us what you think.

FBP, volume 1

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift by Simon Oliver, art by Robbi Rodriguez, and color by Rico Renzi, 160 pages

When your sink breaks, you call a plumber, but when gravity breaks, you call the FBP.

For some reason, the laws of physics have gone a bit haywire. Gravity may decide to stop working outside of your local high school, or time will decide to run a little faster inside your home than outside of it. When that happens, the FBP will come in and fix whatever's wrong. A relatively new agency, it's seeing a fair amount of change itself - veteran field agents who were there in the beginning, doing whatever it took to get the job done are suddenly finding themselves superseded by kids fresh out of college who have largely spent their lives learning about physics instead of seeing it. Agent Adam Hardy is caught between these two. The son of a physicist who disappeared when he was a child, he was attracted to the glamorous danger of the FBP's work. But physics isn't the only problem facing the FBP. Like anything government does, there are legislators who bristle at the idea of the government being the only one in charge of protecting people from physics and think that the private sector should have a whack at it. So when a bubble universe forms in a major metropolitan area, everyone is interested to see how the FBP handles the job. And in the case of Agent Hardy, he begins to quickly realize that there is more going on here than simple American politicking might suggest.

FBP is a comic that has been on my radar for awhile, but it wasn't until I bought a copy of this volume for my brother's birthday that I finally took the chance to read it. And I'm really glad I did. It's stories like these that I'm glad that comics exist. Simon Oliver's premise of "physics is broken" is perfectly suited to being told panel by panel, where art and color can also help tell you what's going on. He manages to explain to you what is going on, science-wise, and why that's not right pretty clearly (though, let's be honest - I'm a librarian, not a physicist, so I have no clue if his science is correct to begin with). And Robbi Rodriguez's art is fantastic. Slightly messy, he manages to convey energy and movement in his lines, even when the characters are standing or sitting still. Rico Renzi's coloring work is equally great, with muted colors contrasting perfectly from the brighter, almost neon colors denoting moments where physics is going wrong. If you're looking for science fiction that is closer to science fact, then you can't go wrong with FBP. I'm looking forward to reading more set in this world.

Heads or Tails

Heads or Tails / Lilli Carre 200 pgs.

An interesting collection of short stories that are all a little bit magical.  All deal with the human condition and many with avoidance.  I particularly like the one where Madeline "slits" from herself and finds herself already in places she is going.  For example, she heads for bed but finds herself already sleeping there.  After hanging around watching herself for awhile, she goes to a new town and starts a new life and forgets about her old self.  There are many gems here.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon  200 pp. (of 452)

It's rare that I don't finish a book but I just couldn't take any more of this one. Warren Zevon was a great musician but an awful person. This book, which is a series of narratives, anecdotes, vignettes from family, friends, fellow musicians, and his own diaries tells the whole ugly truth of his addictions, womanizing, obsessions, violence, and other bad behavior. I didn't know much about him other than his music and I'm sorry I found out. Before his death, Zevon asked his ex-wife to write this book and spare no gory details. She followed his wishes. Maybe in the future I'll pick it up and finish it. 

Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT?

Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? by Roz Chast  228 pp.

Christa reviewed this book and said pretty much what I would have. Parts really hit home for me especially since my 87 year old mother-in-law is making plans to enter assisted living soon. Chast portrayed the bad and, less often, the good in the process of dealing with her aging parents with honesty and humor, where possible.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, 753 pages.

Book four of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, upon which HBO's Game of Thrones is based.
The story of 10-year-old Arya, one of my favorite characters, plays a big part here, but it takes a strange turn as she leaves the Seven Kingdoms, looking for the knowledge that Jaqen H'ghar, the faceless man, has promised.  Lots of fun and lots of action, though it is tough to keep the different chronologies straight.

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Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis, 271 pages.

Lewis's latest look at Wall Street covers the post-2008 crash phenomenon of High Frequency Trading (HFT). The author was surprised to learn that many of the biggest banks and big trading companies allowed HFT firms to have access to their in-house "dark pools," and allowed those same firms to have the fastest fiber connections into and between their exchanges. This allowed the very smart, very high-tech HFT firms to have microsecond or nanosecond advance knowledge of big trades, giving them and their high-speed computers time to get ahead of the trade and make a fraction of a cent or so on every share traded. The author estimates that on each of the strategies that were discovered by the traders who gave him the info for the book, the HFT folk made at least a billion dollars per year. Interesting stuff. One of those eminently accessible works of nonfiction that has the pacing and plotting of a good solid novel, though that's no surprise since readable quick-paced nonfic is a specialty of Lewis.

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Plugged: a novel / Eoin Colfer 254 pages.

 Daniel McEvoy is a bouncer at a seedy small-time casino in New Jersey.  He is ex-military with serious "daddy" issues but with the ability to take care of himself.  When his sort-of girlfriend ends up murdered, he gets caught up in an amazing week of crazy circumstances, missing friends, shady police business, and mob-like antics.  The plot is full of holes but our hero is so fun and the narration so funny, you will be happy to overlook the more ridiculous aspects.  I'm already looking forward to reading the follow up book.

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Running Blind

Running Blind / Lee Child 360 pgs.

 I'm really trying with these Jack Reacher novels.  Everyone tells me how great they are and I want to believe, I really do.  In this outing, Reacher is tied down to the house his mentor and father figure left to him in his will.  He is also in a committed relationship with the daughter of the same guy. He is getting antsy and feels overwhelmed by the responsibility.  He gets the chance to help the F.B.I. on a case of recently separated women from the military who are turning up dead in very bizarre circumstances.  Nobody can figure out what killed them and they are found in a bathtub full of paint.  I have no problems suspending my belief that any of this can be true.  I'm willing to go along with the ridiculous plot to get the Reacher action and thrills.  I can admire the pull for the simple life. BUT I have to just stop believing when Reacher's entire portfolio of belongings is a single tooth brush and the clothes on his back.  Dude you must stink.  Yes, you can shower every day but putting the same unwashed clothes back on each and every day is just not possible.  You have to have a spare outfit and get some tooth paste to go with that toothbrush.  PLEASE, I'm supposed to be falling for you but I can't get past the personal hygiene issues.  And, to get a little more picky, this guy is so strong and skilled he can kill many with his bare hands...I will believe all of that too but I think you would have to do a little bit of a workout every now and again.  Maybe this book covers such a short time period that he has suspended his workouts but even so, he only has that one outfit so I'm not seeing how it can fit in either.  The Jack Reacher movie was widely panned but I'm curious to see if it can explain these two big issues for me.  Maybe I'll read another of these books but it will be awhile.

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Seven wonders

Seven Wonders / Adam Christopher 405 pgs.

The Seven Wonders is a super hero group protecting the California metropolis of San Ventura from the evil super villain The Cowl. Somehow they haven't quite managed to eradicate the threat and The Cowl is still active.  One day, mild manner computer sales man Tony Prosdocimi wakes up with a super power...the next day another.  Turns out he is becoming the strongest super hero in the world.  He will finally get The Cowl once and for all. But wait a second.  Things aren't quite a straight forward when he saves a corner store from being robbed but in the process trashes the place and scares the heck our of the clerk who throws all the cash at him and simpers in fear.  Tony needs some money so he ends up taking it.  Now his power has sort of gone to his head.  Is he a good guy or a bad guy?  Hard to tell.  The second act includes an alien invasion that brings out every superhero to fight for the survival of earth.  In the end this book starts out with a bang but then goes on too long.  It isn't a bad book but makes me want to reread the much better "Soon I will be Invincible".

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They do it with mirrors

They do it with mirrors / Agatha Christie 182 pgs.

Jane Marple visits an old friend by request of her sister.  The sister is worried.  Things seem a bit off with her sister Carrie Louise and she can't really put her finger on what it is.  Jane Marple arrives to assess the situation and decide if something is really amiss.  Soon after her arrival, there is a murder...then another.  She is in the thick of things and helping the police.

It has been a long time since I've read Agatha Christie but it is such a delight to return.  It seems like her books follow a simple pattern and yet the mysteries are plausible and interesting. Jane Marple is not Wonder Woman, she is, instead, an average woman who pays attention and can put together a theory.  In other words, she doesn't let the "facts" get in the way of what really happened.  This is something to admire.

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Eat and Run

Eat and Run / Scott Jurek 260 pgs.

Scott Jurek was featured in "Born to Run" one of my favorite books of 2009.  This memoir is interesting partly because it is also a bit of a cookbook.  Jurek went from a carnivore and hunter to a vegan all to help his running.  He is an ultramarathoner which is another word for "insane".  He regularly runs races of 100+ miles.  Another way these people compete it to run for 24 hours and see how covers the most distance.  Crazy stuff.  But Scott is a bit surprised by his success. He was regularly beaten at shorter distances and in cross country skiing.  The book doesn't really explain his success.  He is competitive, of course, and seemingly immune to pain, which he freely admits is a large part of every competition.  He give some simplistic advice on how to get started but that is not the reason to read the book.  In the end, his is a compelling story of dedication and achievement, oh yea, and the love of cooking.

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Independence Day

Independence Day / Richard Ford 451 pgs.

I read the "The Sportswriter" many years ago then found a copy of this novel in the donation pile so decided to read the second in the series.  For some reason I always remembers the basics of that first book and this one starts up not long after the last one ends.  Frank Bascombe is no longer a sports writer, he is a real estate agent.  He is divorces but still pines for his wife...of course he cheated on her and was kind of an ass so it is hard to feel TOO sorry for him.  Between the two novels, he set out for France, had a fairly serious but clearly doomed relationship with a much younger woman who was mostly attracted to his money and then a "re-evaluation" that made him return and try to be a good dad.  Not sure he is achieving much of anything but this book lands on the long Independence Day weekend where he is taking a "guys" trip with his troubled teenage son and doesn't know how to cope.  This is a lot of "white guy" angst which I probably don't care about a whole lot.  Ford is a good writer and this novel won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1996.  I just noticed there is a third book in the trilogy which I will probably read to finish the set but not right away because Frank Bascombe is just not compelling enough for me to worry how things turned out for him. 

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lost for words, by Edward St. Aubyn

This send-up of the selection process for major literary awards should have been more amusing than it was.  When MP Malcolm Craig, who is from Scotland, is asked to assemble a committee to choose this year’s winner of the prestigious Elysian Prize for fiction, a dubious cast of characters is assembled as the judges – a popular crime novelist, an actor who misses most of the meetings, an Oxbridge scholar, a journalist.  Some of the candidates for the long and then short list include the irresistible and promiscuous novelist Katherine Burns; first novelist Sam Black, who lusts after Katherine; an Indian named Sonny who has produced a 2,000 page magnum opus; and a couple of books, wot u starin at being one title of supposedly gritty realism, by Scottish authors who are favored by Malcolm.  Snippets of the short listed book are quoted throughout.  When Katherine’s publisher inadvertently submits a cookbook by Sonny’s aunt in place of her novel, things become even more problematical.  Didn’t make me laugh….  261 pp.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Middlemarch - Finally!!!

Middlemarch by George Eliot  852 pp.

This is the first time I've done the Adult Summer Reading although I haven't participated in any of the discussions. I have to admit that I almost gave up on the book more than once. But I persevered and made it through. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, I have to admit it is a well written book that covers themes that although dated, still have relevance today. The story focuses on the status of women in the 1800s focusing on Dorothea whose lofty goals and expectations of marriage are sadly unrewarded. The nature of marriage is also examined in the pairing of the spoiled Rosamund and her idealistic husband Dr. Lydgate. The themes of social class prejudice, hypocrisy, politics, and education play parts in the story also. It is no surprise that Eliot wrote about the status of women considering she had to publish her books under a male nom de plume. I'm just glad I didn't live in that era with the snobbery and restricted options for women.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dropped Names

Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them by Frank Langella  384 pp.

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir by Tony Award winning actor Frank Langella. This isn't a biography but a series of remembrances about the famous and infamous he has known as acquaintances friends, and lovers. Most of the "names" in the book are from show business but there are a few, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the Queen Mum who played large and small parts in his life. Langella has not written about any living celebrities but in his 50 year acting career his acquaintances were many and varied. This isn't a tell-all book but he doesn't shy away from admitting to romantic and/or sexual liaisons or to discussing bad behavior of himself and others. I just wish he hadn't said Cary Grant was boring in person (Say it isn't so, Frank!).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

And the dark sacred night, by Julia Glass

The title is the worst thing about this new novel by the author of Three Junes, which I admired.  I have been less taken with her later books and this is no exception.   The dialog, particularly in the first half of the novel, seems stilted and I missed the vivid character depictions in the earlier book.  But that said, the second half of the novel is much more engaging and it was an enjoyable summer read.  Kit Noonen is in a funk – having been denied tenure, he is staying at home with his and his wife’s twin nine-year-olds and rather aimlessly looking for a job.  He has never known who his father was, and his mother, Daphne, has refused to reveal the name, even after the twins are born and there is their genetic and medical heritage to consider.  His wife feels that his stalled life may get back on track if he can solve this existential riddle which troubles him more than he knows.  He hopes that his stepfather, Jasper, may have clues so reunites with him.  Jasper and his mother were married when he was nine, but the marriage ended a decade or so later and Daphne went on to a third husband who was willing to have another child, as Jasper, father of three boys besides Kit, was not.  There’s a blizzard, and a hurricane, but they pale in comparison to the emotional upheavals that ensue.  380 pp.