Thursday, April 30, 2015

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Johnson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson, 336 pages.
Johnson, who as a newly minted lawyer in the mid-1980s volunteered at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, helping death-row inmates who had been at best poorly represented at trial, went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative. Since that time, he and his staff have sent hours, days, months, and years struggling to bring something approaching equal justice to prisoners and accused people all over the U.S., particularly in the south. Over the course of his career Stevenson has worked to free those wrongly convicted and those who have received punishment, sentences out of line with the crimes for which they have been convicted. Unsurprisingly, all of Stevenson's clients are poor, many have mental health issues, many are African-American, and none had received decent representation in their dealings with the courts. Stevenson has pled many cases before the Supreme Court and was instrumental in having the law of the land changed. It is no longer considered constitutional to execute those who are convicted of murders committed when very young, nor is it allowed to sentence these youngsters to die in prison. 13-year-olds can no longer be sentenced to life without parole.
Stevenson tells some harrowing tales, some with situations or outcomes that will make you cry, and some that will allow you to feel a little bit of hope. An excellent book.
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Life on Mars: Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars: Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Smith's 2011 collection of poems won the Pulitzer Prize. I failed to notice this until I recently saw her memoir, Ordinary Light, hanging around the Library.
There are beautiful poems, (really great poems) like "Sci-Fi," "Ransom," and "Challenger," that explore the world, and the larger universe as we imagine it might be. Smith has a great villanelle (or semi-villanelle, I'm not sure), "Solstice" is another example of the author's greatness as it's ostensibly about JFK airport, but also about terror and the lives we're living. Strikingly, there are more David Bowie references than I expect from prize-winning poetry. I checked out four of Bowie's CDs after reading these, so I could re-acquaint myself with the source material and get more from Smith's excellent poems.
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Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, 238 pages

In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell turns her trademark wry humor toward the colonization of Hawaii during the 19th Century. Starting with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 and continuing through the 1898 annexation of Hawaii by the United States, this book offers a wonderful introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture and the ways in which Anglo-Saxon culture affected what were once known as the Sandwich Islands. (Pluses: written language, ability for women to eat bananas. Minuses: well... way too many to count.) For fans of Vowell's and history, this is a must-read.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo, 417 pages

This is the final chapter in Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, telling the story of Alina Starkov, an orphan who discovers that she has the ability to summon sunlight, a unique talent in a world where magical manipulation of elements is commonplace. Over the course of the trilogy, Alina falls in with, and then fights against the manipulative Darkling, a shadow summoner who is determined to rule their homeland of Ravka. Ruin and Rising wraps up the story neatly, though not necessarily in the way one would expect.

This is not the best YA trilogy I've ever read, nor is it the worst. If you're looking to get in a Russian frame of mind (as, ahem, some UCPL readers may be), this series may be a good, quick read in your preparations. It's certainly filled with plenty of Russian names, words, and styles. And yes, it's worth your time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marcus off duty

Marcus off duty: The recipes I cook at home / Marcus Samuelsson 352 pgs.

Samuelsson is the Swedish/Ethiopian/American chef that delighted me with his memoir Yes Chef and now is challenging me to try some cooking with a bit more style and total ingredients than I usually use.  He pulls it together with stories of his family and where he learned about certain dishes.  A nice complement to his memoir.

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Cat out of hell

Cat out of hell / Lynne Truss 163 pgs.

In some ways, this reminds me of another book about killer cats.  This book reveals that the killing part used to be much easier for cats and was, at one time, the purpose of hissing.  This is a very British mystery that involves a couple of cats way beyond their nine lives and some librarians who get involved and occasionally murdered.  It is hard to give you a summary of the book without giving major plot points away but suffice it to say if you love cats, this will confirm some of the things you have always thought about them.  If you hate cats, this will confirm some of the reasons why. Librarians mostly come across as lovable...except for that one guy.  But you will have to read if you want to find out more.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Bettyville, by George Hodgman

The best kind of memoir.  Betty is 91 and lives in Paris, Missouri.  When her son, George, comes home from New York for a birthday visit, he ends up staying on to help her.  Or perhaps help himself.  A successful editor, with gigs at Simon and Shuster and prestigious magazines such as Vanity Fair, he has recently become unemployed.  Working freelance, he is able to remain in Paris.  Betty still plays bridge, is mostly compos mentis, but has lost her driver’s license and is increasingly confused and needy.  An only child, George grew up in rural Missouri knowing he was different, and he has not really come to terms with his relationship with either his father, Big George, long gone, or his feisty mother.  He is gay, with no longtime partner or even a pet to tie him down.  His sexuality is something that he and his parents have really never have talked about.  Betty and George spar with each other and he worries about what the future holds for her, and himself.  An engaging and thoughtful book with some local color that makes it particularly fun for St. Louis readers.  It would be wonderful to have him speak at the library.  278 pp.

Love, Nina: A nanny writes home, by Nina Stibbe

Nina is a talented author, even as a young woman writing home from London to her sister Victoria.  The letters begin in 1982 and report the daily lives and sometime verbatim conversations of the family she lives with and their friends.  The family consists of Mary Kay Wilmers, deputy editor of the London Review of Books¸ her sons, and the family friends and neighbors include playwright Alan Bennett, doctor, theater and opera director, Jonathan Miller, and novelist Michael Frayn.  Without such famous names, perhaps this might never have seen the light of day 35 or so years later, but it is very amusing.  320 pp.

The book of unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez

The story begins with the long journey of the Riveras, who have traveled north from Mexico to Delaware.  They are seeking special educational opportunities for their teenaged daughter, Maribel, who has been seriously injured in a fall.  There they live side by side in marginal housing with many other immigrants, all “Hispanic” in some way, but from different countries.  When Maribel catches the eye of Mayor Toro, from Panama, it sets in motion a tragic story.  Individual chapters focus on different characters while still moving the main story forward.  Interesting in part because of the depiction of so many diverse cultures, having primarily language in common.  Most of white America does see those from south of our border as all being the same.  286 pp.