Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The House of the Scorpion

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, 380 pages

Matteo Alacrán wasn't born, but cloned. The copy of the notorious drug lord who rules the land of Opium, a strip of land that exists between the United States and Mexico (now called Aztlán), The House of the Scorpion chronicles Matt's life, from his isolated existence at the edge of the poppy fields with Celia, to the years spent alone in a cell under the cruel Rosa, to his life in the big house as the treasured guest of the real Matteo Alacrán (known as El Patrón). Tutored and pampered, Matt believes that he's destined for something more, but he quickly learns the real reason why El Patrón needs him. A dystopia written for young people before dystopia was the hot thing, The House of the Scorpion is written more in the vein of 1984 or The Giver than any of the more popular dystopias since. Nancy Farmer provides a critical look at the ethical issues surrounding cloning, as well as issues like the drug trade and slavery through the scope of Matt's life, making a compelling case for nurture over nature in the raising of a child. I first read this way back when it first came out, and I remember it blowing my young mind, but the second time around, not so much. It's still a fantastic story, so if you like your dystopias more sci fi based, you'll like this one.

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist / Roxane Gay 320 pgs.

As you would expect, there are a lot of essays in this book about feminism.  But many other essays about other topics.  Race, gender, sexuality, television, movies, books, work, politics, and one absolute treasure about Scrabble.  Roxane Gay is a bad feminist because she likes pink (the color), men, and what people think.  She freely admits to shaving her legs!

Bad feminism aside, Gay is funny, smart, opinionated, and oh so right.

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Under the Never Sky trilogy

Under the Never Sky, 374 pages
Through the Ever Night, 341 pages
Into the Still Blue, 392 pages, all by Veronica Rossi

Three hundred years ago, a massive solar flare disrupted the upper atmosphere, causing the earth's magnetic poles to fluctuate wildly and allowing cosmic storms past the atmosphere, blocking out the sky. With Aether storms making it nearly impossible to live out in the open, a lottery was held to determine who would live in the new, self-sustaining pods and who would be stuck to fend for themselves outside. Aria has only ever known life inside Reverie, one of the pods. But when the link to another pod goes down, cutting her off from her mother, she's willing to do anything to find out what's going on. With her friend Paisley in tow, she sneaks into a damaged part of Reverie with Soren, the son of Hess, a leader of the pod, with the hope that Soren will have some info about what happened to her mother. What happens instead is that all hell breaks lose. Helped by an Outsider that just so happened to have snuck in, Aria manages to avoid losing her life, just to find herself kicked out of Reverie by Hess in an effort to keep Soren out of trouble and to smooth everything over.

Perry, brother to the Blood Lord of the Tides, has been pushing his brother to move their tribe further inland in an effort to get away from the Aether storms. Vale will have nothing of it, meaning Perry feels like he's forced into either challenging Vale for leadership of the Tides (something that usually ends in death) or leaving for good. But he doesn't want to leave his nephew, Talon, behind. But when Talon is taken by Dwellers and Vale mysteriously returns home with lots of food for the hungry Tiders, Perry knows he has to leave. It doesn't take long for Perry to find Aria and save her again. After a rocky start, they soon figure out that they're stronger together, kicking into motion events that could lead them to the last refuge from the Aether, possibly saving them all.

I feel like pretty much every review I write ends up with me squeeing over how good a book or series is, but whatever, I guess it's my thing. Veronica Rossi has crafted an intriguing future world, opting to go more sci fi than straight dystopia/speculative fiction. And, since it's YA, there's plenty of wonderful romance - in fact, it might be just as much a romance as it is a dystopic action adventure story. I also really enjoyed how she switches perspectives between Aria and Perry, making the story about them and how they're affecting change, as opposed to the whole chosen one trope. Not that I have anything against chosen one stories, it's just that a LOT of YA dystopia uses that as its starting point, so it's refreshing to get a story that is about two people, not just one. It's an engaging, rollicking adventure that manages to keep churning along breathlessly without losing steam. If you're a YA dystopia fan, then this is a trilogy you'll definitely want to check out if you haven't already.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos  341 pp.

I read this a couple years ago when it won the Newbery Award. I re-read it because it is the first book for the Treehouse Book Club.

Combine Eleanor Roosevelt, a strange old lady writing obituaries, a dying town full of odd characters, hot paraffin, a bomb shelter, and a surplus airplane and you have the makings of an entertaining story. As if suffering from chronic nosebleeds wasn't bad enough, Jack has been "grounded for life" for firing his dad's souvenir war rifle and mowing down his mother's corn crop (on his father's orders). The only place he's allowed to go is to help old Miss Volker write obituaries for the elderly of the town that are dying off at a rapid rate. In spite of his grounding, Jack manages to get into more trouble often with the assistance of his father. His mother wants the town to be saved while his father is hired to move the vacant houses from Norvelt to West Virginia. Where does Eleanor Roosevelt come into it? Norvelt was a Depression era government project to provide homes for the poor miners. Because she played an important part in its creation and the town was named for Eleanor Roosevelt. Gantos takes a part of his childhood and liberally adds fictional details to make a fun book about a boy learning that life is not always what it seems.

The Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker  512 pp.

In 1899 a lonely Polish man enlists the help of a disgraced rabbi to make him a golem, a creature made of clay, to serve as his wife. On the journey to New York, the man dies on board the ship leaving the golem, Chava, to fend for herself in a new world. Only an old rabbi recognizes what she is and takes her in to teach her how to get along in the world. She lives in a boarding house on the Lower East Side and takes a job in a bakery. Meanwhile a Syrian jinni arrives in New York sealed in an olive oil flask. He is released but wears an iron cuff which means he is not truly free. Ahmad, the jinni, makes his home in Little Syria helping the tinsmith who accidentally freed him from the flask. A chance meeting between Chava and Ahmad leads to an unlikely friendship. Enter the villain who wants to control both magical creatures for his own nefarious purposes and the story takes a new turn. While this is a fantasy, strong historical fiction elements describe the immigrant experience of two divergent cultures making new homes in America. Different and enjoyable.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, 438 pages

When I was twelve, I was a hardcore Backstreet Boys fan. It started with the music (thanks TRL!), then quickly went to searching online for any and all information I could find, then to coming across and reading what could only be later termed fanfiction (and even writing my own, which, thank god, only stayed between my equally-obsessed bestie and myself). Then Harry Potter got big, my musical tastes changed, and I dabbled in reading Harry Potter fanfic (Sirius/Lupin are my OTP) and speculating online about what will happen while waiting for the next book to come out. I say all this just to give you an idea of how much I identified with Fangirl.

Cath, like most of the world, is a huge Simon Snow fan. The difference is that she spends a lot of her free time writing fanfiction about Simon and his roommate, Baz, and that a lot (we're talking thousands of views) of people are reading it. About to start her first year at college, she's not only dealing with the anxiety of moving away from home, but also with the fact that her twin sister, Wren, is determined to have a separate life from her while there. Her roommate, Reagan, is surly; Reagan's boyfriend (or is he?), Levi, is always around, even when Reagan isn't; and the only class that she cares about is Intro to Fiction-Writing. Still, she manages to carve out a life on campus, despite the occasional family/school drama. Rainbow Rowell is so good at evoking what it's like to be a slightly awkward college freshman, to have to deal with people you only slightly know hanging out in your tiny dorm room (hi to all the sweaty nerds who piled into my room and onto my bed to hang out with my roommate), and to feel sorta disappointed that your freshman year isn't aligning with what Hollywood thinks should happen. And she's just as equally good at evoking what it's like to be so intensely into something, whether it's a band or book or TV show (sorry for all those rambling, one-sided conversations about Nine Inch Nails, Abby and Malena), but also feeling like you have a dirty secret, that I spent a lot of my time shouting I KNOW THAT FEEL while reading this book.

I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. If you're a fangirl (or fanboy!) about something, anything, you will like this book. If you like romance, you will like this book. If you were ever awkward, unsure of yourself, more inclined to stay in on a Saturday night than the rest of your floor in college, then you will like this book. Contemporary isn't something I choose to read a lot, but after reading Fangirl and also loving Eleanor and Park, I'm willing to make an exception for Rainbow Rowell.

The Vacationers

The Vacationers / Emma Straub 292 pgs.

Jim and Franny planned a fabulous family vacation with their two kids and one other couple for their 35th wedding anniversary.  Well that was great until Franny found out Jim had recently cheated on her with a very young woman at work...she found out when the company fired him after many years of service. But the vacation was paid for so they went.  Also in attendance are their son Bobby with his much older girlfriend Carmen and their daughter Sylvia who will be leaving for college just days after the end of the trip.  Franny's dearest friend Charles and his husband Lawrence are also along.  They are holding their breath waiting to here about a possible adoption...something they have been working on for over a year.  Clearly everyone here has issues although none are insurmountable.  A couple of weeks together do shed some light on issues.  A bit of a chick lit title.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014


Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking / Susan Cain 333 pgs.

One third to one half of the population are introverts.  What does this mean?  They can be people with outgoing personalities at times but who prefer to "recharge" away from a crowd.  It follows that extroverts often gain energy from crowds.  How to manage these differences in a group at work, in personal space or really any relationship?  Cain gives plenty of information.  Being an introvert isn't a bad thing, just a different.  She says that introverts are sometimes misunderstood but does a good job of educating readers.  What to do if you are an introvert, have one in your class (teachers), have one as an offspring?  Great advice is contained in this book.

I enjoyed the examples of famous introverts and feel very schooled on the differences between introverts and extroverts.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell 624 pp.

Bone Clocks, David Mitchell's latest, comes embedded with a print soundtrack.  For each of the book's eras - '80s, '90s, 2010s, etc., he shares the music his characters hear in a way that adds texture and depth to the story.  So it is fitting that I write my review with a song in mind.  It's Sedaka's Breaking up Is Hard to Do.  Careful Blog readers will recall my love bordering on creepy stalker passion for Mitchell's writing in Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Even Number9dream, while not a fantastic book, was a very good one.  But in Bone Clocks, it's not me, it's him.  Or we've just grown apart.  Or something.

Holly Sykes has always heard voices and had nighttime visitors that no one else can see.  So when as a teenager she has a terrifying vision in a tunnel, followed by witnessing a hideous double murder which memory is later redacted, we know that her otherness is gravely important.  (But redacted?  Seriously?  I can watch the X-Files by my ownself, thank you.)

The story follows Holly over her long life, which stretches years ahead of our own time.  We learn that there are Temporals, who live outside of time, in a continuous cycle of rebirth.  They fight the Anchorites, who would like to be Temporal, but can only do so by decanting souls from the living.  We read the story from the points of view of different characters, such as Holly's husband Ed and her short-term lover Hugo Lamb, a delightfully sinister character recycled from the novel Black Swan Green.  Particularly annoying is the long section devoted to Holly's later life friend Crispin, a middle-aged author whose best days are behind him.  He doesn't figure into the plot, really, making it seem that Mitchell has asked his audience to read over 100 pages of semi-autobiographical whining about not winning the Booker.  (Justified whining, but distasteful nevertheless.)  In sum, the novel is 80% character development, with a brief action-packed climax, followed by a frighteningly real post-apocalyptic epilogue.  It has an angry, anti- quality -  anti-Booker committee, anti-religion, anti-Chinese, mild anti-Americanism -  but doesn't compensate us with a compelling mythology or deep meaning.

Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet / David Mitchell 479 pp.

Read this ages ago and apparently never put it on the blog:

Jacob accepts a position as clerk with the Dutch East Indies company at Dejima, a fortress-like town off the coast of Nagasaki circa 1800. He is young, reverent, intelligent, and scrupulously honest, which traits may make it difficult for him to make his fortune quickly enough to marry his sweetheart Anna back home in Zeeland. His plans get complicated quickly when he meets Orito, a beautiful but disfigured midwife. Worse for Jacob, he is not the only, and certainly not the most powerful, man interested in her.
  I could give much more detail about the plot, but that would do little to convey what I found wonderful about this book. The dialogue is so intricate and complex (and often, extremely funny) that it deserves to be called Shakespearean. Mitchell conjures up a world that most of us know nothing about - Japan in a state of almost complete isolation - and makes it fully real. Jacob's inability to discern friend from foe, even among his own countrymen, overlays perfectly with the challenges inherent in all cultural collisions. Suspense, mystery, and the interplay of faith and the Enlightenment. What could be better?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkowski, 355 pages

Ten years ago, Valoria conquered Herran, a peninsular nation that valued art and philosophy slightly more than war and military prowess. Like all good conquerors, the Valorians enslaved whatever Herrani were left. While at the market one day with a friend, Kestral, the daughter of the general who led Valoria to victory, finds herself stuck in the crowd of people around the day's slave auction when a young Herrani blacksmith comes up for purchase. Without totally realizing what she's doing, or why, she finds herself bidding on him, pushing the price higher and higher until she finally manages to win. A little surprised with herself, she brings the smith, Arin, home and puts him to work. But she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him, and is soon looking for ways to talk to him about him and his life before slavery. And Arin, despite playing an integral part in a plot to lead the Herrani into rebellion, also finds himself drawn to her, wanting to legitimately know more about her, and not just looking for information that will be helpful to his secret cause. When the rebellion happens, Arin's role in it feels like betrayal, and Kestral, who can usually manage to out-think her opponents before they realize it, doesn't see it coming and is left not knowing what to do or who to trust.

This book is beautiful, from its cover to its words. Marie Rutkowski does a fantastic job of making both Arin and Kestral nuanced characters. Both are filled with doubts and uncertainty over who they are, if they can be what others need them to be. And even when we're reading their perspective, you can never really know the truth of them, as they both manage to avoid thinking about and examining their true feelings, especially about each other. Rutkowski is so good at writing around the edges of things, leaving the reader to try and fill in the empty spaces between words, that even after spending time inside both Arin's and Kestral's heads, they still manage to be enigmas. The action definitely picks up in the second half of the book, and keeping track of the time gets a little difficult. With so much happening by the end of this book, it's hard to see where the rest of the trilogy is going to go. But I'm ready to be surprised, and ready to spend more time with Arin and Kestral.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Heart of a Goof

The Heart of a Goof by P.G. Wodehouse  256 pp.

If you don't know anything about golf this book may bewilder and bore you since all the stories are centered around the game, various eccentric players, their romances, marriages, relationships, and their mishaps on the links. The characters are all quintessential Wodehouse in their foibles and oddly touching characterizations. Whether it is a young man trying to impress a young woman but going about it entirely the wrong way to a married man who bets away the faithful family butler in a round of golf, these tales of the Edwardian upper crust are amusing, once you get past all the golf talk. While this is far from my favorite, I am still a devoted Wodehouse fan.

Get up!

Get up! Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it / James A. Levine 234 pgs.

I picked up this book thinking it would be another one of those "you should do THIS to solve all your problems" but then give some action plan that would require devoting your life to accomplish.  Instead, this is incredibly fun to read.  James Levine has studied obesity throughout his career and has had FUN doing it.  He shares all kinds of personal stories and insights and they will make you laugh.  He also tells you how to improve your NEAT - non-exercise activity thermogenesis.  These are the calories you expend just living your life.  These days that life includes a LOT of chair time.  Dr. Levine says we can make a huge difference by just standing up.  Get out of the chair and life a longer happier life.  Seems like a pretty decent trade off.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Wicked and the Just

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, 345 pages

Things are not going great for Cecily. Not only have her and her father been forced out of the only home she's known by her father's older brother, but her father decides that they're going to move to Wales. Wales, which has been newly conquered again by King Edward. Wales, which is full of savages.

Needless to say, she's not pleased.

But she's not the only one. Gwenhwyfar (or Gwinny, as Cecily takes to calling her) would want nothing better than to see the English removed from her home, for things to return to the way they used to be. But with the English occupying Caernarvon, she and her brother, Gruffyd, are forced to live hand to mouth, working day in and day out just to keep a roof over their heads, their mother alive, and the taxmen off their backs. Resentful is not a harsh enough term for how Gwenhwyfar feels about Cecily, who she calls the brat. And Cecily doesn't care too much for her, Gwinny being a savage and all. But being forced together can make for a strange friendship, if it can be called that. Unfortunately, a strange friendship is not enough to overcome systemic oppression, especially when the two of them were never equal in the first place. Like the title suggests, both girls are capable of being wicked and just, and neither the English or the Welsh are right in their actions. This book is a fantastic look at the power that's at play when people decide to conquer others and subjugate them unfairly, yet it still manages to entertain. Cecily is so bratty but secretly insecure that contemporary readers will identify with her. Gwenhwyfar, when the perspective switches to her, is terse, angry, and, at times, befuddled when Cecily manages to not act like a jerk. While most of the book reads like J. Anderson Coats is just trying to give you a slice of life, the setting and the characters will keep your interest until the action picks up towards the end. It's a wonderful story that deals with issues that are still around today, even if the setting and situation are unknown to the reader.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Possibility of Violence / D.A. Mishani 280 pp.

The second in a series following 2013's The Missing File and featuring Detective Avraham Avraham, or Avi.  This case concerns a fake suitcase bomb left outside a Tel Aviv daycare.  As in the first novel, much of the action concerns Avi coming to understand the psychology of the people involved in this case rather than frantic action, while in the background he deals with a new European girlfriend and difficulties with his police mentor and friend.  Still enjoyable and a nice birds-eye view of day-to-day Israeli life.

Dinner: the Playbook: a 30-day plan for mastering the art of the family meal / Jenny Rosenstrach 219 pp.

Rosenstrach wants you to make dinner.  Like, every night.  But she's funny and witty without being sickening, so it's OK.  She presents 30 days of relatively simple meal plans with recipes, but the bulk of the book is about how to change your routines and mindset to make that happen.  Mostly she reminds you of things you already know, such as how much simpler you can make your week by roasting and shredding a couple of pounds of chicken breast on Sunday.  Or that a hungry house at 6pm is a little less terrifying if you've taken 15 minutes to prep in the morning.  The recipes are easy to follow and those I've tried were tasty, especially the crock pot spareribs and the fabulous and truly easy chicken noodle soup.

The negatives: Rosenstrach refers to recipes that she's published in other books - who needs that when you're in a hurry?  And the index is quite feeble.  I knew there was a recipe for spareribs in there but couldn't find it under pork, ribs, or spareribs.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant / Zachary Lazar 249 pp.

A fascinating novel that I can't quite categorize.  Hannah is an American journalist in Israel investigating the murder of a poet.  She is estranged from her father, as the poet was estranged from his son.  In a way I can't explain, this is all connected to the story of  gangster Meyer Lansky who, when faced with prosecution in the US, spent time in Israel before being re-patriated.  (He too had strained relations with his son, severely disabled from birth.)  Another character is a Holocaust survivor who might have been Lansky's mistress, and who surfaces in New York during Hannah's childhood.  Nominally this is the story of the poet's murder, but it's written as almost a collage of parent/child images with a strong echoes of the Abraham and Isaac story.  The writing is graceful and strange without feeling overly 'experimental.'  Appreciated if not quite understood.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members / Julie Schumacher 180 pg.

This book is priceless!  An professor in an unloved field writes reams of LORs (letters of recommendation) and other letters to his boss, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend, his various enemies in the literary world (ok, not enemies, just people who hate him).  They all have one thing in common, they are brutally honest and mostly hilarious.  I'm not sure that you need to have much experience in academia to appreciate this book.  Jason Fitger is a bit of a malcontent but there are some good reasons for this.  His department is crumbling, his boss is an interloper from sociology, his building is being renovated around him.  His ex-wife & ex-girlfriend are in touch behind his back. He doesn't have time to write pleasantries in the many LORs he is requested to write, somehow they all end up to be about him and the source of his disgruntled attitude.

A great book for anyone that has dissatisfaction in their life or has ever attended or worked at an institute of higher learning.  Hmmm, that is probably everybody.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

I Am Spartacus!

I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas  210 pp.

In 1959 Hollywood was still cowering under the "Red Scare" brought about by the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kirk Douglas wanted to make a film about the Roman slave, Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast, one of the authors who went to prison rather than bow to HUAC. Douglas also wanted the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, to write the screenplay. Trumbo had written screenplays for other films under pseudonyms and agreed to do it for this one. By the end of nearly two years of work on the picture, with multiple delays, cost overruns and fights with the censors, Douglas decided that Trumbo's name would be in the credits much to the dismay of Universal Pictures.  It's a fascinating story in Douglas' own words that inspired me to seek out the restored version of the film which has the scenes removed by the censors. I have vague memories (I was 2) going to see the film at one of the big theaters (maybe one of the Loew's) because it's the only time I remember going to the movies as a family that wasn't a drive-in. The family story is that I cried during the opening credits when the statues crumble but was well behaved through the rest of it.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein  291 pp.

This chapter book is in the running to be a selection for my kids' book club. It's a fun story that anyone working in a library would enjoy reading. Not only is Mr. Lemoncello's library an amazing place, there are lots of references to a wide variety of books, and some very intelligent kids playing a challenging game. Twelve children in the small town of Alexandriaville, Ohio are chosen to be part of a lock-in at the town's brand new library. The town's original library closed many years earlier. The book is an homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Before the kids can leave the library they must follow clues to figure out how to escape from the building. The main character, Kyle, is a fan of all types of games and just an all round good kid who idolizes master games maker, Luigi Lemoncello.  Of course, there's  Kyle's nemesis, a pretentious rich kid named Charles Chillington who will do anything to win. This is a fun one.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr 531 pp.

I had a long wait for this one, and it was well worth it.  This lovely novel is set in the heart of European World War II, but telescopes that massive backdrop into the stories of two young people, the Parisian teenager Marie Laure, blind since age 6, and Werner, an orphan in a coal-mining village in Germany.  Werner is a kind of prodigy of electronics, assembling and repairing radios throughout his village.   Meanwhile Marie Laure learns to navigate the streets of Paris by memorizing wooden models crafted by her adoring father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History.  The long winding plot bounces back and forth between the years leading up to the war and an intense few days in August 1944 during the bombing of St Malo on France's west coast.

Mr Doerr's writing is almost too good for the plot, dense and clever as it is, even featuring a mysterious diamond shrouded in a dangerous legend.  He, or his editors, may have had their hopes set on a Hollywood deal (and they may get one), but this story is more than a fast-paced tearjerker.  It is a beautiful look at what it means to see, and to hear, and to live a good life.

Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies / Leanne Shapton 320 pgs.

Leanne Shapton writes about swimming from her serious competitive days when she was in the running a the Olympic trials but did not make the team to her lifelong pursuit of swimming as a form of exercise, a time for meditation and a source of relaxation.  This is sort of a memoir of swimming around the world, what it means to be weightless in the water, powerful in the pool, feeling lost in open water. Swimming has been an important part of the author's life almost forever.  Like other athlete's stories that I've read, she touches on but does not overwhelm with the motivation to train, the need to compete and win through the pain.  The dedication to sport takes away many opportunities for other activities.  There is a price to being good and getting better and it isn't easy to know when to move on with your life. 

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The vacationers, by Emma Straub

Set in a villa on Mallorca, this is a typical beach read.  Although the Posts, Jim and Franny, son Bobby and daughter Sylvia, all have problems, as do their friends Charles and Lawrence, a married couple who are anxiously waiting to hear if they will be chosen to adopt a baby, it is a little hard to feel too sorry for any of them given where they are able to go to try to escape their troubles.  The trip was meant to be a 35th anniversary celebration for the Posts.  However, since the vacation was planned, Jim has been fired from his job as an editor of an upscale magazine after a brief fling with an intern; Franny finds this impossible to forgive – mostly because of the age of the girl involved, barely older than Sylvia.  Sylvia, headed for Brown University in the fall, has gotten drunk at a party and compromising pictures of her have been shared over social media. Twenty-eight year old Bobby comes with Carmen, his longtime girlfriend who no one really approves of – she’s 40 and a personal trainer.  Somehow, with the application of sunny weather; the introduction of a handsome native speaker who is employed to tutor Sylvia in Spanish and an similarly handsome tennis pro for Franny; and the consumption of a lot of really great sounding tapas, it all comes out right in the end.  As a good beach read should, and it is just that.  Just fun.  292 pp.

Coaltown Jesus

Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge  122 pp.

Fourteen year old Walker prays for God to help his mother who has not stopped crying since Walker's older brother died. Walker also wants to know why God would take his seventeen year old brother when half of the residents in his mom's nursing home are waiting to die. Then Walker finds Jesus standing in his bedroom. This version of Jesus is not a staid, serious deity. He cracks jokes, eats ice cream, and is a little freaked out by a sign on a hardware store advertising "all kinds of nails."  Even though Walker asked for his mom to be helped, he also needs to come to terms with his brother's death. This is brief novel in verse packs a great deal into a few pages. And I was amused by the fact that the nursing home Walker's mom runs in the made up Coaltown, Illinois (20 miles from St. Louis) is called the Bissell House, the same as the historical home a couple blocks from my house.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Fortune Hunter

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin  473 pp.

Charlotte Baird is an English heiress who is more interested in the new art of photography than the social obligations her family and status require of her. The Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is beautiful and has an independent nature also and is bored by her life in the court of her much older husband Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi visits England because she is an avid horsewoman and plans to participate in fox hunting season. Captain Bay Middleton is young, handsome and the best horseman in England. He is smitten with Charlotte and wants to marry her but her family disapproves because of his history as a womanizer. More complications ensue when Bay is given the job of being the Empress' pilot during the hunts.  The Empress is known for always getting what she wants and what she wants is Bay. All in all it's a pretty typical love/break-up/reunite story but with the addition of horses and photographs. I was a bit disappointed in the ending and don't think this was as good a novel as Goodwin's previous one, The American Heiress. Once again there were a couple minor historical details that were in error like a character singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" which did not become popular until 1904, three years after the death of Queen Victoria who is very much alive in this book.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Soldier Girls

Soldier Girls: the battles of three women at home and at war / Helen Thorpe 397 pg.

Interested in our various wars? This is the book you have been waiting for.  Unlike the many novels about Iraq and Afghanistan and the many high level analyses, this tells the story of actual soldiers who spent time in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The book follows three women who signed up for the Indiana National Guard but end up on active duty.  Certainly it is impossible for us to imagine getting pulled out of you life and daily routines for a year and get sent to a foreign place with few amenities and your life is in danger.  I've yet to read a book that really conveys the real consequences to the people who serve...that is until now.

This book is excellent and important.  I won't bother to summarize the events and the people because you should read it yourself.  It will give you a taste of the struggles of these people who we think of as "soldiers" and forget they are just like you and me.  They have families, relationships and serving does not leave them unaffected. Read about real people and see how veteran benefits and services seem even less adequate than you thought.

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Yes Chef

Yes Chef: a memoir / Marcus Samuelsson 319 pg.

A remarkable memoir by Samuelsson, a very famous chef who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a loving family in Sweden.  He now makes his home in New York.  This is the story of the struggle anyone has to succeed and build something for themselves.  In addition, being a member of a small minority in a country where there might not be as many hang-ups about race but there are SOME.

His grandmother Helga starts him on his journey loving food and preparing it.  Those early memories are so touching and he does a great job of describing them and how they shaped his life.

Samuelsson does a great job of explaining that working hard is the only way to make it in the culinary world.  He traces his development from Helga's kitchen to high end restaurants in Switzerland, France, cruise ships and finally New York City where he is named executive chef at Aqavit, at the age of 24. His success continues as he cooks this first state dinner for the Obama administration and he opens a restaurant in his Harlem neighborhood.

This is a great book and it is hard not to fall in love with Samuelsson and his family.  I listened to the audio version of this book which is read by the author.  His voice added so much that I recommend it highly.

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Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs / Jacqueline Winspear 294 pgs.

The first in a series about a woman private detective set in the 1920's with flash backs to her earlier life.  This is her first case on her own and, of course, there are some issues.  Maisie is whip smart, with a very loving dad and a wealthy mentor.  I enjoyed the historic setting and the pacing of the story.  Looking forward to reading more in this series.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Falling out of Time / David Grossman 193 pp.

This is a work that can't be classified: part poem, part drama, part surreal prose, it is a meditation on death, and specifically the death of children.  (So whatever it is, I hope it isn't autobiographical.)  But I wonder.  We first meet The Walking Man and his wife.  The Walking Man circles the town, night and day, trying to get 'there,' the place where his son is.  "There is no there," says his wife, but he goes anyway.  He meets the Centaur, half man, half desk, in a house piled with children's furniture and toys.  There are the Town Chronicler, the Duke, and several others.  They are all circling, moving, trying to get 'there.'  Exquisitely painful and beautiful reading.
P.S.  I wish I hadn't done it, but after publishing the above, I looked.  Grossman's son was killed in '06 in southern Lebanon when his tank was struck by a rocket.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Rise: Creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery

The Rise: Creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery / Sarah Lewis 259 pgs.

What happens when you fail?  Some people give up, some people try again, some people move onto something completely different.  Sarah Lewis profiles several people who started out with something that ended up in failure and then moved onto something else.  She also talks about ideas that are ignored but then later turn out to be the answer.  "Grit" is being studied by psychologists and measures your ability to stick to a task or how hard you will work to achieve a goal.  People with more "grit" are more successful than even people with greater talent and ability.

A very interesting book that leads to a lot more reading.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Sea, the Sea / Iris Murdoch 495 pp.

Charles Arrowby is just retired from a sparkling life as a London theatre director of some fame.  He chooses an isolated house on the south coast and begins his memoirs, in which he will presumably write of his long love affair with a much older actress.  Instead, he almost immediately becomes haunted by visions and strange sounds in his house and in the wild water where he daily swims.

And the isolation doesn't last.  He stumbles across Mary, a woman he loved as an adolescent and was mysteriously separated from.  She is frumpy and seems unhappy; Charles is a man of action and determines that he will rescue her and finally experience true love.  As he hatches his bizarre and rather frightening scheme, he is visited by a host of characters from his past, all crowded into his poorly-equipped cottage.

Charles is a horrible egomaniac but a fascinating narrator.  Toward the book's end, he acquires a kind of wisdom in beautiful passages that owe much to Eastern religious tradition.  I can't categorize this novel, but I recommend it nevertheless.

August totals

August Totals books / pages

Patrick 13 / 5,794
Karen 5 / 1,915
Kathleen 3 / 967
Christa 9 / 3,059
Linda 10 / 3, 477
Natalie 1 / 157
Rob 1 / 231
Amy 18 / 4,752

Total 60 / 20,352