Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gone Bamboo

Gone Bamboo by Anthony Bourdain  304 pp.

Chef and snarky television personality, Bourdain, once again tackles mobsters, denizens of the underworld, and government agents in his second novel. His first novel met with great acclaim but I haven't read it yet. This one is so-so. A semi-retired hitman and his wife are living the good life on the island of St. Martin until a new neighbor moves. This neighbor is Charlie Wagons, the now disabled mobster who was the victim of Henry's only botched hit. Charlie's compound is surrounded with federal agents who are guarding him while he awaits the time when he will turn on his colleagues in court. There are other hitmen and mobsters, a big shootout and a pretty unbelievable ending. The  mediocre story wasn't helped by the ridiculous number of typos in the Kindle version. I am a big fan of Bourdain's television and nonfiction work but this was disappointing.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley  352 pp.

This is book six in the Flavia de Luce series. The family is awaiting the return of the body of Harriet de Luce who had been lost in the Himalayas since Flavia was a baby. Flavia, who has no memories of her mother discovers a lost film featuring her parents and two older sisters. In the film her mother mouths the mysterious words "pheasant sandwiches" while a mysterious man can be seen in the window of what is now Flavia's chemical laboratory. Winston Churchill had asked Flavia about pheasant sandwiches when he came to pay his respects. The twelve year old sleuth uncovers the secret past of her mother and her work during the war as well as who is responsible for her untimely death all while dealing with an intrusive younger cousin and other relatives. The ending is a surprise which opens new possibilities for more books in the series.

Speaking from Among the Bones

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley  416 pp.

Eleven year old amateur sleuth and chemistry prodigy, Flavia de Luce once again investigates murder. This time it is the organist of St. Tancred's Church who is the victim. Mr. Collicutt had gone missing weeks before and his body is found when the tomb of St. Tancred is opened at the 500th anniversary of the saint's death. Flavia is first to see the body with a face covered by a vintage gas mask and she's off to find the killer. But who would kill an organist and why? In the mean time Flavia's father is dealing with the immanent loss of Buckshaw, the de Luce estate while her sister, Ophelia, makes plans to marry. This is a grand whodunit from a fun series. A proper British mystery.

Pen & Ink

Pen & Ink: Tattoos & the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald & Wendy MacNaughton  133 pp.

This was a bit of a disappointment. I requested it after reading a review only to find that the tattoos were depicted as drawings rather than photographs. The stories that went along with the tattoos ranged from a couple lines to a few paragraphs by the owners of the tattoos. None of the stories behind the tattoos were particularly outstanding or unusual.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
Kawabata was the first Japanese author to become a Nobel Laureate (in 1968), In 1972, he killed himself.
In Beauty and Sadness, published in Japan in 1961, but not published in the US until 14 years later, Kawabata tells a story of love, ruined lives and revenge. Oki Toshio travels to Kyoto at the new year in the hope of seeing Otoko again. It has been twenty years since they have last seen each other. That was a very traumatic moment for Otoko, her mother, Oki, and his wife. Otoko's mother is now dead, but none of the other three have really recovered. Otoko's now in her mid-thirties and Oki is in his mid-fifties.
The book moves slowly with most of the characters quietly guarding their feelings. Keiko, Otoko's protege, and Oki's son Techiro are more open, or at least willing to express their feelings, though that doesn't really help them.
The setting, especially in the outdoors, in the hills around Kyoto, on the water, in the fog, is quietly wonderful. And none of the characters notice or comment on anything that gives you a sense of when the book is set. It's quite a powerful book.
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Friday, November 28, 2014

Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind / Sarah Wildman 386 pp.

Wildman's Grandfather Karl was a successful medical doctor in the United States, but in 1939, as a young man, he was forced to leave Vienna with several other family members.  In spite of losing several members of his extended family in the Holocaust, and enduring serious financial stress during his early years in the US, he went on to lead what could be called a charmed life:  happy marriage, loving family, tremendous career success, exotic travel, and good health.  It is only after his death that the granddaughter discovered that Karl had a 'true love' he was forced to leave behind in Vienna.

Paper Love is Wildman's attempt to find this woman, Valerie (Valy) Scheftel.   Her research takes her to the Czech Republic, Vienna, Berlin, and London over a period of many years.  The memoir is a multi-layered reading experience.  We learn Valerie's story, Karl's story, Sarah's story as she meets contemporary German and Austrian historians and gleans their perspective on their countries' dark histories.  It is also the story of unraveling the paper trail left behind by the bureaucrats of the Third Reich.

Wildman's writing is eloquent, fluid, and deeply emotional.  Although the reader can guess Valy's fate in broad strokes, the details are quite suspenseful in Wildman's retelling through Valy's many letters.   Perhaps it is Karl's story that is even more interesting though.  A man whose most salient characteristic was optimism, Sarah comes to understand that Karl would have spent his life as a survivor, always coming to terms with what he had left behind.

The stager, by Susan Coll

This unusual novel starts out conventionally enough.  A wealthy couple with a 10-year-old daughter are trying to sell their oversized luxury home in a DC enclave in an iffy market prior to relocating to England for Bella’s new high-powered job.  Her husband, Lars, is a former tennis star, Swedish and gorgeous, who has blown out his knees and sunk into joblessness, depression, over-use of prescriptions with x and z in their names, and weight gain.  Leaving daughter Elsa at home in the care of an au pair during a week-long trip to London, they have hired a new real estate agent who brings in a “stager” to de-clutter and de-personalize their house for the Sunday open house.  Then things get a little crazy.  As Lars slips literally down the rabbit hole, the prior relationship between Bella and “the Stager," Eve Brenner, come into focus.  Elsa is caught in the middle.  A bright and perceptive child, she develops a fascination with the Stager.  What started out a bit like chick lit turns darker and stranger, but still hilarious in spots and the social commentary is delicious.  Look out for rabbits serving tea.  An unexpected pleasure.  272 pp.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Texts from Jane Eyre

Texts from Jane Eyre: and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg, 240 pages

What would it be like if texting was available to Hamlet, John Keats, or, obviously, Jane Eyre? It would very well be something like what Mallory Ortberg has written here. An example, with Edgar Allan Poe:

where are you?
where are you?
you're like two hours late
it's almost midnight
i can't get out of the house right now
is your car blocked?
do you need a ride?
it's like
there's this bird
there's a bird on your car?
no he's sitting on my statue
it's like
mm it just keeps looking at me
got those fiery bird eyes
you know?

And so on. What makes so many of these great is that she manages to get a lot of the feeling of the original source material into these imagined text conversations (the one with John Keats going on about his urn is a personal favorite), even when she's not deliberately referencing a certain book or story. Some of the conversations went a bit over my head since I wasn't familiar with the story or characters, but if you were an English major or are a big fan of the classics, this will probably amuse you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

At Home in Exile / Alan Wolfe 272 pp.

Wolfe is an American academic whose book is a call for the Jewish people to embrace their position in the diaspora.  He calls for a return to 'universalism' in Jewish thinking rather than the 'particularism' which has arisen since the Holocaust and the development of the state of Israel.

In vigorous, clear language (one reviewer calls Wolfe's style 'feisty') Wolfe plumbs the issue of diaspora in a way which calls into question the nature of Jewish identity itself: can one be fully a Jew and yet content to make a home outside Israel?  Are those who do so allowed both to love Israel and to be critical of her at the same time?  Who gets to decide these issues?

Wolfe looks at important historic and contemporary Jewish politicians and intellectuals and characterizes their thinking in terms of universalist or particularist features.  Of course this is a dichotomy which works effectively in an argument but which in real life is less tidy.  Still, I found Wolfe highly accessible and even a pleasure to read.  This will certainly be a controversial work, but it may also be a necessary one for anyone who wants to participate in future conversations about the Jewish people.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Villa Incognito

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins  256 pp.

Not the best Robbins novel, but it does have its charm. The story begins in Asia with the Tanuki God, who has a penchant for saki, sex with human females, and apparently enormous testicles. Then the plot morphs into a tale of three Vietnam MIAs who have made their home in Laos, a young woman with a chrysanthemum seed embedded in the roof of her mouth who may or may not be a Tanuki/human, and a cast of other odd characters. Of course, there is the usual Robbins disparaging comments on religion, government, the military, and big business along with Robbins' expertly crafted similes and metaphors: "The afternoon passed more slowly than a walnut-sized kidney stone." Fun but not the caliber of Still Life with Woodpecker or Jitterbug Perfume.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dear Daughter

Dear Daughter / Elizabeth Little 365 pg.

Janie Jenkins is found with her murdered mother in a room full of evidence against her.  But did she do it?  Even she doesn't know.  No fan of her mother, she blacked out and has no memory of the incident itself.  Now, after a decade in prison, she is released on a technicality.  She goes looking for the truth and ends up discovering the small town where her mother grew up.  Everyone there seems to have secrets too so she sort of fits right in.

I had some fun reading this book but the plot holes are big enough to run the truck through that Janie steals to get her to where she needs to go.  Why steal a vehicle when you are filthy rich (the inheritance from her mother)?  So many things don't make sense but I guess sometimes that is a good description of life.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rain reign, by Ann M. Martin

I’m always on the lookout for new books for my soon-to-be-nine-years-old grandson, an avid reader.  This was highly recommended in the NYT but although it is rated for ages 10 and up I won’t be sending it to him anytime soon.  It is a very good book, but so sad.  Rose, the fifth grader who voices the story, is an intelligent girl on the autism spectrum.  Her obsession with homonyms and prime numbers, and the lack of social awareness typical of such children, have made her life even more difficult that it already would have been.  Her mother left the family when she was very young and her father spends his time at an intermittent job at a local garage when not hanging out at the Luck of the Irish bar.  His short temper makes it difficult for him to be patient with his daughter or show her much affection.  Luckily, his brother Weldon lives nearby and is a more stabilizing influence in Rose’s life.  One late fall night, Rose’s father shows up with a young dog he has found lost and without a collar.  Rose names her “Rain” since she was found in the rain and the word has two homonyms, rein and reign.  Rain becomes a loving presence in Rose’s lonely life and helps her become a bit more accepted by her classmates.  The next fall a hurricane hits the area and Rain is lost in the storm.  How Rose searches for her and what she finds out will have the most hard-hearted reader sniffling through the last few chapters.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…..  The book provides insight into the inner world of individuals like Rose.  226 pp.

The Lord of Opium

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer, 411 pages

In this sequel to The House of the Scorpion, Matt returns to Opium after the death of El Patrón and all his family. As the last living copy of El Patrón, Matt is now legally human and, more importantly, recognized as El Patrón himself. With opium shipments piling up and a rival drug lord at his door, what is a fourteen-year-old boy in charge of a drug empire to do? Matt wants to do the right thing by fixing the eejits, those who tried to cross Opium to go to either the US or Aztlán and were instead captured and turned into mindless slaves, and pulling up the opium to plant real crops, but those around him, like Cienfuegos, the head of the Farm Patrol, are determined to turn him into El Patrón Junior. So Matt sets about learning about his kingdom, including the hospital in the mountains where he and other drug lord clones were grown, the biome where all the habitats of the world have been preserved, and the observatory linked to the Scorpion Star, El Patrón's space station. As he digs deeper into the life he has inherited, he learns more and more about the lengths El Patrón went to build and protect his kingdom. Can he figure out how to do the right thing while keeping the power El Patrón left him? Or will he turn into El Patrón, living out his ninth life as the old man would have wanted?

Like The House of the Scorpion, I enjoyed this one, but I probably would have enjoyed it more had it come out more quickly after the first one. There is a focus on the ethics of altering people without their consent, and Nancy Farmer allows the reader to wrestle with that issue along with Matt without presenting one right answer. She has also managed to create a world that's just futuristic enough that it feels like it could still be our own. The ending is open enough for another sequel, but it's also satisfying in case she doesn't. This is a good one if you enjoy your YA dystopias free of love triangles or romance in general and with less of an emphasis on chosen-one-saves-the-world narratives.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hand to Mouth

Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America / Linda Tirado 195 pgs.

What do you think you know about being poor?  Perhaps you have first hand experience.  If you don't, you probably have all kinds of ideas about why people are poor and why they stay that way.  Maybe you should read this book and get a first hand account of the difficulties that arise when you don't have the $100 you need to get your car out of the tow lot.  By the time you get paid at the end of the week and DO have the money, the bill has gone up to $800.  You lose your vehicle.  With no transportation, you lose your job.  With no job, you lose your apartment.  Things that are a real pain in the ass and inconvenient for someone who DOES have the $100 tow fee become life altering for those who don't.  When you are living on such a slim margin, pretty much anything can push you off the track.  It happens over and over and it is something that can really grind you down. Now and then you can read a book and really understand a part of someone else's life.  I think this is one of those books.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

You’ll enjoy it when you get there: The stories of Elizabeth Taylor

On Kathleen’s strong recommendation, I picked up this collection of stories from the 1950s to 1970s (Taylor died in 1975 at 63).  Although the author was well-regarded during her lifetime – many of the stories first ran in The New Yorker – I had really never heard of her writings.  She seems have fallen out of favor as only a few single copies of her works are held by any of our member libraries.  You may have seen the charming movie, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which was based on one of her stories.  Taylor’s stories are just wonderful.  Most concern ordinary people living small lives in post-war suburban England.  The stories can be as depressing and bleak as the loneliness of some of her characters (for example, the shy young girl in the title story who, with overwhelming dread, has been forced to accompany her father to a political dinner in place of her ill mother).  Many concern the currents that run under everyday conversations and how language can divide people rather than lead to better understanding.  She has a terrific ability to call up a fully realized character with just a few deft sentences.  Unlike many short story collections, where a day or two after finishing them most of the stories have run together in my mind or disappeared altogether, Taylor’s linger.  Thanks, Kathleen!  428 pp.