Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web / E. B. White 187 pgs.

The classic book about a young girl Fern and her terrific pig, Wilbur and Wilbur's best friend Charlotte the spider gets better every reading.  The story of friendship, the circle of life and believing in the possible remains relevant and should be required reading for all.  This is included on the TIME magazine's best Young Adult books of all time.  Certainly one of the greats.

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A god in ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A companion novel to her wonderful Life after life.  Both revolve around World War II as experienced by the British and feature many of the same central characters.  In the first book, Ursula Todd lives and dies many times while experiencing alternative histories, but much of the action of the book takes place during the Blitz.  This new novel follows her brother Teddy’s war as a fighter pilot based in Yorkshire as he makes seventy night bombing raids over Germany, rather miraculously surviving them.  Only 50% did, and the odds of someone who entered the war at the beginning making to the end fall to 10%.  Interspersed with vivid and accurate accounts of these raids and the emotional tensions before and during a bombing run, is the account of his life after the war.  He marries the girl next door, who dies tragically soon, leaving him to raise his resentful young daughter, Viola.  Viola’s life as an adult is a haphazard mix of sixties-style hippie communes, single parenthood raising Sunny (Sun Edward Todd) and Bertie (Moon Roberta Todd), a bad marriage, and a life still full of bitterness at sixty.  Though she becomes a successful author, not much about life, including her 98-year-old dying father, pleases her.  Less unexpected than Life after life, A god in ruins still saves one last big surprise for the end.  I found the character of Viola a bit overdrawn, but loved Teddy, who after surviving the war vows “to be kind,” and his two grandchildren, who manage to come through their own battles with Viola’s indifferent and damaging mothering with their characters intact.  464 pp

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, 323 pages

So that's why there are so many holds on this book! Told from the points of view of three women with intersecting lives, The Girl on the Train revolves around a missing woman whose life is not at all what it seems to outsiders. Hawkins presents us with some thought-provoking depictions of alcoholics, depression, unemployment, and stay-at-home moms, and makes us question our judgments of others, all while creating a thrilling story that ramps up in intensity and keeps us guessing until the last second. A great book, and well worth the wait.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy  228 pp.

Skilly the cat becomes the mouser at the Cheshire Cheese Inn, home to a wonderful cheese made in house and an overpopulation of mice. Also at the inn are an unscrupulous barmaid, an injured Tower of London raven named Maldwyn, the cranky cook and cheesemaker, and Pip, a mouse with incredible talents. Frequent visitors to the inn include Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Skilley has a secret: he doesn't like to catch and eat mice, preferring cheese instead. With the help of Pip he has an agreement not to harm the mice as long as they continue bringing him cheese. Then the mouse hating barmaid brings in Pinch, a mean and vicious cat who is deadly to the mice and has set his sights on Maldwyn. The fate of the raven threatens both the Inn and the British Monarchy. During all of this Dickens struggles with finding the perfect opening sentence for his novel A Tale of Two Cities. (The first line of this book is "He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.")  A surprise visitor and the help of Mr. Dickens brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. This is a fun chapter book and a possible candidate for the Treehouse Book Club.

When to rob a bank

When to rob a bank...and 131 more warped suggestions and well-intended rants / Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner 387 pgs.

From the Freakonomics guys comes a collection of their blog posts with some minor updating and explanations.  These posts date back to the very beginning when they asked "If you were a terrorist, how would you attack?"  That post got many interesting comments, as you can imagine.

As for as when to rob a bank?  The analysis shows that there isn't a perfect time.  The risks are great and the rewards not so much.  For this and more good advice, check out this book.

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Monday, June 29, 2015


Dataclysm: Who we are when we think no one's looking / Christian Rudder 300 pgs.

An excellent book that reveals the power of big data.  Christian Rudder is a co founder of the dating website OkCupid and he has a lot of data about people who are looking for dates.  In this book, he boils down a huge pot of data to some wonderful insights about about groups of people.  The analysis is interesting, fun to read while sometimes shocking (and sometimes not).  Rudder has done a great job of making this digestible for the average folk.

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry / Fredrik Backman 372 pp.

From the author of the lovely A Man Called Ove comes a tale even more packed with characters and events but which lead, alas, to a less satisfying reading experience.  Elsa is seven and different; her best friend is her grandmother, an off-the-wall retired surgeon who makes a lifestyle of causing incidents such as frightening the neighbors by hiding inside a snowman and tacking pizza slices on Christmas wreaths.  Together they spend their days having adventures in the imaginary land of Miamas until Grandmother's days come to end.  Then, Elsa is sent on a dangerous quest to bring peace to her multi-family apartment building, which involves hidden letters and real predators.  Fanciful and sweet but with an artificial quality; Ove was a much more real character than anyone in this story.

The true meaning of smekday

The true meaning of smekday / Adam Rex  423 pgs.

The story of Gratuity Tucci and J.Lo after the alien invasion is priceless.  The earth has been invaded by the Boov (of which J.Lo is one) and then later a second invading force shows up.  Gratuity and J. Lo end up sticking it out and figuring it out, eventually saving earth and all its inhabitants with a little help from a cat named Pig.  I listened to this as an audio book and the reader is perfect.  Highly recommended fun.

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The Sculptor

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud   488 pp.

This is by far the best graphic novel I have read. It's a Faustian story of a young sculptor whose promising career stalls and in a drunken depression sells his soul to the devil in the guise of his Great Uncle. The sculptor is given 200 days left to live in exchange for being able to sculpt anything. In the process he meets an aspiring actress who is soon his love interest. It's hard to summarize this story without giving it all away so I'll just say you should give this a try even if you don't read graphic novels.

Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Disai  209 pp.

The Chawla family lives in a small town in India. Their ne'er do well son, Sampath, has been a failure for most of his life; at school, at work, and at life in general. After losing his post office job he tires of his family's nagging and climbs a tree in a nearby guava orchard to find some peace and contemplate his life. Through a series of misunderstandings and mishaps Sampath becomes an unlikely holy man to the town and his father has turned it into a money making opportunity. A local monkey known for attacking patrons of the local movie theater becomes friendly with Sampath. Soon a troop of monkeys have converged on the orchard. When the monkeys develop an insatiable taste for alcohol, the band of drunken monkeys become a problem in the orchard and the town. Various solutions are proposed by ineffectual government officials, none of which seem to solve the problem. In the meantime, Sampath's sister has developed a crush on the local ice cream vendor and begins to stalk him. In addition there is a spy from a local atheist organization who is trying prove that Sampath is a phony. And poor Sampath just wants to be left alone. The culmination of all the hullabaloo is an open ending that leaves you wondering if Sampath succeeded in finding peace. This is a fun book with several laugh out loud moments.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Holy Cow

Holy Cow by David Duchovny   206 pp.

Elsie, the cow (no, not the Borden one) and a friend sneak out of the pasture so her friend can romance a bull. Elsie spies the "God Box" in the farmers living room and watches a horrifying program about the meat industry. Elsie and other farm animals including a pig recently conversted to Judaism and an IPhone using turkey don disguises and, with stolen passports, set out for a new life. Eventually the threesome end up uniting the Israelis and the Palestinians. Elsie is the wise-cracking narrator of this escapade who leaves us with this message:
"You, me, the animals in the wild, the animal at your feet, the animal on your plate, the person next to you--
We are all one
we are all holy cows

Enough said.

What's the Alternative?

What's the Alternative?/ Rachel Singer Gordon 279 pgs.

A great primer on alternate jobs that are appropriate and attractive to people with a masters in library science.  Librarians have a skill set that goes with other types of work.  Depending on your specialty and educational background, there are other types of work that are welcoming to librarians and other information professionals.  Rachel Singer Gordon does a good job of providing an overview of options.  This book is from 2008 but many of the resources that the author suggests are still around.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Digger, vol. 2-6

Digger, vol. 2-6 by Ursula Vernon, 700 pages

Snarky, practical and responsible, Digger the lost wombat is exactly the kind of heroine we need in graphic novels and literature in general. I got sucked in by the first volume, and quickly devoured the rest of Vernon's wonderfully told, and wonderfully illustrated, tale. While a story about a wombat, a bunch of hyenas, and a crazy devotee of Ganesh sounds silly (particularly when you throw in the oracular slug and vampiric squash), this is a great thought-provoking read, ruminating on morality, ethics and religion. And it manages to do so in a highly entertaining way, with plenty of action and wry humor. I'll definitely recommend this one to just about anybody who can read.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins / Kate Atkinson 468 pgs.

I think Kate Atkinson is making me a bit schizophrenic.  When I start one of her books, I want to do nothing else but read it.  I relate wholly to the characters and get to know them like long time friends.  But at the same time, I don't want to read too fast because then the book will be over and I'm not likely to find anything half as good to read next.  Oh man, it is hard to deal with this paradox and dole out the chapters in a rational way.  In this book Teddy Todd, (Ursula's brother - we met her in Life after life another FABULOUS book by Atkinson) lives his life.  He is a bomber pilot in WWII and really the favorite in the family.  Well loved by his parents, his aunt, his sisters, even the neighbors (he ends up marrying his childhood sweetheart).  But the war and bombing makes it really hard to imagine what will happen after.  Statistically, he has no future, he will not survive the war.  And many don't.  Atkinson somehow has a way of making you understand what it was like.  The horror of it and the way you stop making plans because there is no point.  But Teddy does survive.  He ends up marrying his childhood sweet heart and having a daughter Viola...who has many "issues".  Viola has two children and hers and their story is told here too.  Fabulous work!  I am still struck by how Atkinson can say SO MUCH with so few words.  A true gift to the world of readers.

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Adult onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald

Mary Rose MacKinnon is a 48 year old who has two children with her wife, Hilary.  Matthew, 6, is adopted, and his younger sister Maggie, who is 2, was born to Hilary, the younger of the couple, on their last chance to conceive.  Mary Rose (also known as “Mister” after her initials) has written two successful young adult novels, but has taken a break from starting the final book in the trilogy to stay home with the children while Hilary works.  It is a stereotypically domestic life that Mary Rose had never imagined during her younger, wilder years.  During a week-long period while Hilary is out of town working on a play, Mary Rose begins to confront some of her own history as she struggles to be a loving parent, particularly to Maggie, a willful child like most two year olds.  Her father was a Canadian military man and the family moved frequently, including a stint in Germany. Her mother, Dolly, the last of twelve children born to a Lebanese mother who married at thirteen, has only had three children – she feels that she “is not good at making babies.”  Mary Rose is the middle child, but there are other children born between her older sister Maureen and younger brother Andrew Patrick.  She is named after the “first” Mary Rose, who was stillborn and therefore not buried in the Church.  A son named Alexander lives long enough to be baptized and is buried.  These losses, and other miscarriages, were caused by Rh factor, but that is of little consolation to Dolly, who retreats into depression and turns away from Mary Rose after she is born.  Mary Rose also bears the scars of two surgeries done before she was fourteen for bone cysts on her upper arm which cause it to be easily broken.  Add to this her parents’ inability for many years to accept her “lifestyle” which they feel she has “chosen,” and it isn’t hard to understand why being a parent herself is hard for her.  But despite this rather grim outline and the serious treatment of post-partum depression, child abuse, and the difficulties of coming out as a lesbian, much of the book is a dead-on and often funny depiction of life sandwiched between small children and elderly parents.  A complex and multi-layered book that has the feel of autobiography even if it isn’t.  I recommend it highly.  381 pp. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Digger: Volume two

Digger: Volume two / Ursula Vernon 129 pgs.

Digger is still lost after a trip underground and found herself in the temple of the god Ganesh.  She is trying to find her way home but is making friends in the new place and helping some people out while trying to figure out how to GET home.  In this story she continues her adventure and reveals more about being a wombat.

Good story and great graphics.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Residence

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Anderson Brower, 309 pages

Every four to eight years, a new family moves into the White House, and the household staff there is charged with the job of providing a safe, loyal, and comfortable sanctuary for the First Family in the midst of the stress of the presidency. The Residence examines the household staff's unique position of caring for the First Family on a day-to-day basis, offering up fascinating stories of the quirks of First Ladies (Nancy Reagan was not easy to please!), obsessions of presidents (mentioning LBJ's shower to anyone who worked at the White House during his presidency would certainly elicit a shudder), and visiting guests (my favorite tale involved Prince Philip), as well as in-depth accounts of tragedy, including the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. This was truly a fascinating read, and I can't recommend it enough.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fairest: Of Men and Mice

Fairest, vol. 4: Of Men and Mice by Marc Andreyko, art by Shawn McManus, 144 pages

In this latest installment of the women-centric Fables spinoff series, super-spy and shoe connoisseur Cinderella is called in to take down some odd mouse men who are attempting to kill... well, Snow White and a couple other Fables. It's not incredibly clear why this is happening, nor is there a decent resolution to the story. This is the first Fairest volume without Fables creator Bill Willingham writing, and it shows. There's a lot more action and a lot less plot and character development, despite having some prime characters to work with. I was disappointed.

The Cake House

The Cake House by Latifah Salom, 329 pages

Fourteen-year-old Rosaura's father committed suicide on the same day that her mother left him for another man. But because he killed himself in the front room of the other man's house, Rosaura now has to live in the home of this new man, with her increasingly drugged-up mother, a sexy new stepbrother, a shady new stepfather, and the increasingly violent ghost of her father. Salom's debut novel, The Cake House is spooky, unsettling, and laced with plenty of Shakespearean themes and references. It's a decent book, though it's probably a bit bleak for a summer read. Read it if you really like unlikeable characters.