Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Boxer: The True Story of Holcaust Survivor Harry Haft by Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer: The True Story of Holcaust Survivor Harry Haft by Reinhard Kleist, 193 pages.

The story of Hertzko Haft who was fourteen when the Germans invaded his native Poland. Hertzko and his brothers smuggled food across the new interior borders until Hertzko was shot and wounded. Shortly after that, the Nazis began shipping Jews off to the camps. In attempting to free his older brother, Aria, Hertzko was caught and sent to a work camp. He survives at first by helping the German foreman smuggle goods at a work camp. Later, as things got worse-he had been sent on to Strzelin briefly and then to Auschwitz. In the death camp he does what he has to do to stay alive and to avoid working with the dead. His boxing career begins in the camps, with what amount to fights to the death with other prisoners. Hertzko survives the war this way and fights professionally some time after the war, as well.
A grim tale with dark, foreboding art.

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Here by Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire, 304 pages.
This work provides simultaneous glimpses of the same point in space over hundreds of thousands of years, though most of the scenes date from 1906 to the present (and near future). The art is detailed, colorful, and wonderful. The stories don't necessarily follow a linear chronology, and sometime seem to continue over the decades and centuries. An interesting book. The colorful pages tell so much of the story.
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The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville, 342 pages.
Unemployed and in her thirties, Rea Carlisle finds that her life is not going as well as she thought it would. She tries to hug her parents and tell them that she loves them whenever she can, but they're not comfortable with affection, or emotion of any kind. When Rea's long-lost uncle turns up dead and Rea finds evidence that he may have been a psychopath, and a bit of serial killer, things get worse as her parents get a bit colder and a bit stonier and refuse to let her take what she has found to the police. Desperate to let someone know, she confides in her ex-boyfriend DI Lennon, unaware how badly his career has been going lately, and how little he will be able to help her.

Neville always tells a good tale, and his novels vary widely. His latest is a good read for those who don't mind their crime novels a wee bit gritty.
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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich, 321 pages
Thirteen year-old Joe finds his world shattered when his mother is the victim of a brutal crime. She withdraws within herself, unable to cope. Joe's father, a tribal judge, finds his options limited by the vagaries of tribal law, state law and federal statute. Even when the guilty party is found, there may be nothing that can be done. Joe and his closest friends try to sort out what they can do from what they cannot do. As this group of young teens try to make difficult adult decisions, they start running a little wild. Broken laws, shared secrets, and complicated family relations twist the simplest seeming facts around.
I wouldn't say that this was my favorite of Louise Erdrich's books. I think that I read The Antelope Wife for our book group several years ago, and I know that I enjoyed The Master Butcher's Singing Club too. They were both great books. Whatever failings I feel that The Round House might have, this book is still very good, Erdrich has that wonderful style, where everything she says rings true, important, and worth pursuing.
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C.O.W.L., volume 1

C.O.W.L., vol. 1: Principles of Power by Kyle Higgins, art by Alec Siegel, Rod Reis, and Trevor McCarthy, 128 pages

During World War II, The Grey Raven and other superheroes (some with powers and some just with fancy toys) helped end the war and bring the Allies victory. When they returned home, they found that crime families had taken advantage of their absence and set up shop, especially in Chicago. So what is a superhero to do? Organize and work with the police to bring down the mobs, one at a time. Fast forward to 1962, and C.O.W.L., the Chicago Organized Workers League, has just taken down one of the last supervillains. But unfortunately, their contract with the Chicago Police Department is up for renegotiation, and Mayor Daley is ready to play hardball. Can C.O.W.L. survive, especially when they seem less than relevant? And how did Skylancer, the last villain they took down, end up with classified C.O.W.L. blueprints? This is an interesting premise, almost Watchmen-like, and I enjoyed the set-up for what is likely to be long, overarching story about what might very well be the demise of the organization. The art is great, and the coloring gives a nice, muddy wash (a little too much at times) to really drive home the griminess of the setting. After the end of the issue 5, I'm definitely intrigued to see what happens next for C.O.W.L.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, 284 pages
A 2015 Morris Award Finalist

Gabi is having an interesting start to her senior year of high school: her best friend, Sebastian, has finally come out to his parents, only to find himself kicked out; her other best friend, Cindy, gets pregnant, joining the statistical ranks of Mexican teen moms; and her father, the meth addict, is back home again, claiming he'll get clean for good this time. Gabi, though, is determined to get through her senior year and get into college (and maybe find a boyfriend), all while supporting her friends and surviving her family (her secret stash of special beef jerky and other treats will certainly help with that). She finds solace in her poetry class and writing poetry, and in writing letters to her father that she knows he will probably never read.

This was one that I knew the most about going into the Morris finalists challenge, and the one I was most excited to read. I really enjoyed it. The soap opera that is Gabi's life is perfectly told through Gabi's rapid-fire diary entries, and while it sometimes felt like so much was going on that other issues fell by the wayside (the fallout from Sebastian's coming out kind of gets dropped towards the end), it still managed to hold my attention and keep me invested and interested in what would happen next. I also loved all of the issues Quintero played with through Gabi - there's the identity politics of looking too white for a Mexican, the traditional gender roles and fear of sex that her mother and aunt espouses (and Gabi obviously ignores), the fat-shaming she gets from her mother and from herself. But through it all, Gabi's deep-rooted confidence manages to get her through, even when she thinks it can't. It's a great book, one that's bound to stick with you for awhile after you finish.

(Read as part of YALSA's Morris/Nonfiction Challenge.)

Family life, by Akhil Sharma

A short but multi-layered novel of an Indian immigrant family told by Ajay, the youngest of two sons.  Ajay and his brilliant older brother, Birju, finally receive the important airline tickets that will allow them and their mother to leave Delhi and join their father in America.  There, despite the newness of the culture of Queens, NY, and through dint of hard work, Birju earns admittance to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.  But at the end of the summer before high school, Birju dives into a pool, hits his head, remains underwater for some minutes, and emerges a blind, helpless invalid.  Their hopes for their firstborn are dashed, but the parents care for him at home with little help.  His father slips into alcoholism and his mother allows various charlatans to raise her hopes of recovery for Birju.  Ajay struggles with his love for his brother, his own difficulties in fitting into his new culture, and hatred for what this tragedy has done to the entire family.   A moving and beautiful book.  218 pp.

Us, by David Nicholls

Connie, a free-spirited artist who is now an “arts administrator,” has just told her husband, Douglas, a biochemist who left the ivy tower of academia for the corporate sector, that she “thinks their marriage has run its course.”  Can a “Grand Tour” of Europe, taken as a last family vacation together before 17 year-old Albie leaves for university, bring the three of them back together as they are coming apart as a family?  Albie, being 17, doesn't want much of anything to do with his parents, particularly Douglas.  But off they set.  Told from Douglas’s point of view, we learn how the unlikely pair met and married, of the stress that an affair Connie had soon after put on the new marriage, and of the sorrow of the loss of baby Jane immediately after her birth.  Albie, the second child, has been a bit of a disappointment to Douglas, no matter how much he loves him.  Close to and more like his artistic mother, Albie finds his father’s expectations a burden.   When Albie falls in with a street performer and storms off after an altercation with his father, Connie returns home and Douglas sets off on a quest to bring his son home safely.  We see things as he sees them, but as an outsider understand how completely differently his wife and son may interpret his actions.  At times funny, and at times sad, but always warm-hearted at its center, the novel is both tender and optimistic at the end.  396 pp.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Harry Potter: The Creature Vault

Harry Potter: The Creature Vault: The Creatures and Plants of the Harry Potter Films by Jody Revenson, 206 pages

This coffee-table book provides insight into the creation of the many cool and creepy creatures featured in the Harry Potter films. Filled with behind-the-scenes photos and concept art, the book offers up all kinds of cool trivia and plenty of chances to marvel at movie-making magic. I was amazed to find out which things were created as full-size models (the basilisk, the Whomping Willow) and what was a digital rendering (Harry and Hermoine in the scenes with the Whomping Willow). I also really liked learning about the old-school special effects that were used as well. Great book for fans of the movies.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Carsick: John Waters hitchhikes across America / John Waters 322 pgs.

If you know John Waters and like him at all, this book is for you.  He pitched a book about hitchhiking across America but has also added two sections - one about his fictional "good rides" and one about his fictional "bad rides".  The fiction is hilarious and dirty and just what you would hope for from John Waters.  The "real rides" section is pretty awesome and makes you question what you think you know about John.  His biggest complaint is the bad lighting in several motels that prevent him from reading.  Sounds just like a librarian! I can't imagine how fun it would be to pick him up but I never drive cross country and I'm not sure he will repeat this trip.

I listened to the audiobook and it is read by John himself.  I think that really added to my reading experience.

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Food: a love story

Food: a love story / Jim Gaffigan 340 pgs.

Gaffigan is no foodie but he LOVES food.  This book is just a tribute to all the food he loves but he doesn't leave out the stuff he doesn't like.  For example fruits and vegetables.  Who in their right mind would eat those things when meat, pasta, donuts, and dairy are available?

He also isn't much of a cook although he does reveal his secret recipe for making hot involves the microwave.

So if YOU are a foodie, you might not find a lot to like about this book.  But if you are one who just appreciates food, maybe this would be a good choice.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Story of Owen

The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston, 312 pages
A 2015 Morris Award Finalist

In a world where dragons feed off of carbon emissons and attacks are a daily occurrence, the small town of Trondheim finds themselves thanking their lucky stars when the famed Lottie Thorskard decides to move her family there after recovering from a horrific accident while slaying. It's her hope that with brother Aodhan slaying dragons in the region and Aodhan's son, the titular Owen, in training, more dragon slayers will consider serving the good as opposed to going to where the money is. And that's where Siobhan comes in. After a chance meeting with Owen on the first day of school, she becomes his tutor, and, more importantly, his bard. Tasked with creating a public narrative for his exploits, she's a mix between a modern-day PR rep and an epic storyteller of old. A musician and composer, she's perfectly suited to crafting tales that gloss over the not-so-great moments of dragon slaying and paint Owen as a confident, dragon-slayer-in-training who is bound to become as great as his famed aunt.

I'm not going to lie, I wasn't sure if I was going to like this one. It wasn't the dragon aspect, because I do like dragon stories, but the brief description I read prior to checking this book out didn't have me excited. But once I got into it and realized that this was an alternate version of our world, I found myself really excited by the premise. It helps that Siobhan is smart, knowledgeable about dragon history in general, which allows her to think outside of the box when confronted with problems. Throughout the book, there are brief, infodump-y chapters that help explain some of the history of dragon slaying, and it's here that E.K. Johnston's training as an archaeologist really shines through. You can tell that a lot of thought was put into how dragons would affect things like politics, the military, and economics, especially once Henry Ford starts manufacturing cars. All in all, this is a great story with an interesting premise, and I'm glad to see there's a sequel in the works.

(Read as part of YALSA's Morris/Nonfiction Challenge.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, 288 pages

Five women and one man join together to create the titular book club, examining in turn each of Jane Austen's six books over the course of a year. Each has a favorite book, a favorite character, and a particular way of seeing Austen and her novels. The book is told episodically, aligning with the meetings of the book club, but delving into the past of each of the main characters in turn. I enjoyed how Fowler was able to create such vivid characters through these small glimpses, though I'm not sure how I feel about how some of their stories wrapped up. And, as someone who is not much of an Austen fan, I appreciated that being a die-hard Austen reader is not a prerequisite for enjoying the book. This is a book that makes you think about how you read and why you read what you read; that alone is worth examining.

The UnAmericans / Molly Antopol 261 pp.

This collection of smart, tightly-written stories features Russian-American Jews, both in the United States and Israel.  The title is apt, as all the characters struggle in different ways to be at home here.  Antopol is talented but has perhaps not quite come into her own yet.  Some of the stories - The Quietest Man and The Old World are two - feel formulaic and rather timid.  My Grandmother Tells Me This Story is excellent.

You are here

You are here: Around the world in 92 minutes / Chris Hadfield 200 pgs.

An absolutely stunning book of photos taken from the International Space Station by rock star astronaut Chris Hadfield.  Hadfield is the best PR person for the space program.  The photos in this book are so amazing I found myself paging through several times and appreciating the beauty of the earth.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rebbe: the LIfe and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History / Joseph Telushkin 515 pp.

The Rebbe, as he is generally referred to throughout this book, was the 7th Rebbe of the Lubavitcher  Chasidim, a group whose origins date from pre-Soviet Russia.  The movement is headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the Rebbe spent the latter 50+ years of his long life.  He was a man of superlatives, with an evidently massive intellect and the capacity to work nearly round-the-clock on every day but the Sabbath until he had a stroke at 90.  Most startling to outsiders, in the years after his death many of his followers firmly declared that he was the Messiah, who would soon return to life.
For me the most fascinating thing about him (and I can now think of few people more worthy of being called fascinating) is the way in which he defies classification.  He remained firmly against Israel ceding territory to the Palestinians, yet private documents reveal that he believed that concessions would escalate rather than quiet the conflict and that this would result in more loss of life of both Arabs and Jews.  He vigorously supported retaining prayer in public schools, yet, according to Shirley Chisholm, his advice and encouragement led to her advancing the cause for the creation of the Food Stamp program.  He discouraged late adolescents from attending college until their spiritual identities were formed; he held 'Dollar Sundays' where he passed out dollar bills to thousands of people weekly with the injunction that they give the bill, and more, to the poor.  While reading, I found myself disagreeing with his opinions thousands of times, while simultaneously wishing I too could be granted a yechidus, or a long private meeting with him where he would listen intently and counsel people with myriad questions about their lives.  These yechidusen occurred three nights a week for years at his Crown Heights headquarters and usually lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning.  Although Telushkin makes clear his differences with the Rebbe's views, he is also a fan, and his enthusiasm for his subject animates an incredibly lively and satisfying read.

The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood

The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood by Diana McLellan  508 pp.

What could be a juicy, gossip-filled, romp through the bedrooms and sex lives of famous actresses from the age of silent films to the start of the gay rights movement is actually dry as toast. The women focused on include Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and others with the main focus on Mercedes De Acosta, who seems to have had relationships with all of them and more. Supposedly the author used old FBI documents, private letters, and other sources to make her case for many of the goings on and the book reads like a dusty old file. The most interesting fact in the book is that Tallulah Bankhead's father was a Congressman and Speaker of the House. A disappointing read.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell  530 pp.

I have to admit I almost quit this book early on. I had a lot of trouble getting into the story/ies. I'm glad I stuck with it since it is unlike anything else I've ever read. My first introduction to David Mitchell's work was Black Swan Green. This novel is nothing like that one. There are six different stories in six different periods of history including a dystopian future. The stories appear disconnected but a theme eventually emerges as the reader passes through time, first forward, then backward to an ending that takes place in the past where the book began. During the temporal journeys we travel from Polynesia to Europe, California, England, the Far East, Hawaii and back again. The main characters include a government clerk, a composer, a journalist, a publisher, a clone/slave/revolutionary, and a Pacific islander. These diverse characters face conflicts and dangers fitting their place and time. And then there is the birthmark that some of the characters share.... If you can stick with it this one is well worth the time. P.S. I haven't seen the movie.