Monday, November 30, 2015

Brave Enough

Brave Enough / Cheryl Strayed 135 pgs.

If Cheryl Strayed isn't finding herself on an epic hike, or giving excellent advice to Dear Sugar readers, she must be sitting around thinking philosophically how to live and be happy.  This book of quotations is motivational but also has a strong focus on acceptance.  One of my favorites is "Don't surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn't true anymore."

I can make you sleep

I can make you sleep: overcome insomnia forever and get the best rest of your life! / Paul McKenna 177 pgs.

Some of the techniques in this book seem inspired and there are a LOT of them to try.  I guess a better review would be after I've tested these ideas and can provide details.  One thing I rejected early was the idea to set my alarm for an earlier time.  If there is one time I have very LITTLE problem sleeping, it is right as the alarm is going off.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Min and the Miracle That Set Them Free

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar, 309 pages.
In August, 2010, the San Jose mine collapsed. Located in the Atacama Desert, outside of Copiapo, Chile, the San Juan was a copper mine with a history of safety problems. Tobar, author of the 2011 novel The Barbarian Nurseries, tells the story of the 33 men trapped when a diorite "mega-block,"a piece of the mountain as big as a forty-five story building, falls through layers of the mine, trapping the men under thousands of feet of rock and earth. From August 5 through August 22 the miners dealt with the dwindling hope
that they could even be located by rescuers. Those trying to reach them from the surface had no idea that there were survivors. Once the men were located and hope surged, the nation of Chile, and rescuers from around the world scrambled to try and keep them alive and bring the 33 back to the surface. A great read.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, 319 pages.
Kolbert, the author of the excellent Field Notes from a Catastrophe, (which was a Washington University First Year book several years ago) out-does herself with this incredible, engaging, and  endlessly fascinating account of mass-extinction events throughout history coupled with a long look at the mass-extinction event in which we currently find ourselves. As you might guess from the title, there have been five previous events, but we're in the middle of one of our own making. Filled with great detail and compelling stories, one of the best works of nonfiction this year.

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, 300 pages

After Macdonald's father dies, our author sets out to train a goshawk. The large and somewhat rare goshawks are notoriously difficult to train, though as a seasoned falconer, Macdonald is only kind of setting out in uncharted territory. Through this book, Macdonald weaves together the tale of training her gos, Mabel; her grief after her father's death; and, perhaps surprisingly, the life of author T.H. White, whose own early attempt to train a goshawk (and the role it played in his life) is referenced throughout the book. What sounds somewhat awkward in the previous sentence instead creates a fascinating tale of falconry, of wildness, and of introspection. It's no wonder that this was such a sought-after title when it came out last year. As I listened to the audiobook, I must also commend Macdonald for her reading of her book, which was wonderfully done.

Ms. Marvel, vol. 3

Ms. Marvel, vol. 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson, art by Elmo Bondoc and Takeshi Miyazawa, 112

In this third volume, Kamala Khan begins learning more about other people with superpowers. Turns out, not all of them are nice and some have interesting ideas about the superiority of mutants over humans. Yes, it takes a bit of an X-Men turn here, though it's definitely something Kamala needs to learn as she becomes more comfortable in her role as Ms. Marvel. I also really liked a short interlude with Loki, who spikes the punch at a school dance with truth serum, to amusing results. I really do love this series, the originality of which elevates it above the usual capes-and-tights superhero comic.

At the Water's Edge

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen  354 pp.

Madeleine and Ellis Hyde have led privileged lives in the upper crust until a night of drunken revelry brings them disgrace. Colonel Hyde, who is embarrassed by his 4F son's lack of military service in the war, cuts them off financially and evicts them from his home. Ellis concocts a scheme to get back on his parent's good side by proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster, something that his father failed at years before. Maddie is dragged along on the ill-conceived expedition and finds herself living in a Scottish Inn, suffering through rationing and air raids while her arrogant husband's behavior becomes reprehensible from alcohol and drugs. In the process she comes to love the country and it's people while trying to find a way to end her marriage. Gruen has again written a compelling historical novel that captures the imagination. My only problem with it is I wished Maddie had kicked her awful husband to the curb earlier in the story.

Bride's Story volume 7

Bride's Story volume 7 by Kaoru Mori  192 pp.

This is a continuation of the stories of the Silk Road. Mr. Smith has become the house guest of a wealthy merchant and his wife Anis. According to custom, Anis is not allowed to be seen by the male visitors. She begins to visit the women's bathhouse and discovers a place where she can be herself. She makes friends with another woman there and they become "avowed sisters", a binding relationship which is formalized by ceremony. When Sherine's husband dies suddenly she is left destitute and Anis finds an unexpected way to help her.  Once again, Mori has crafted a well told story. However, the lush illustrations of textiles is noticeably missing in this volume. The author/illustrator explains this in a note that because much of the story takes place in the baths where the women are unclothed, the textiles are absent. But she reassures readers that they will return in the next installment.

The Girl in the Spider's Web

 The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz, 400 pages.
The fourth book in the "Millennium" series, and the first published since Steig Larsson's death, Spider's Web features the two main characters from this popular Swedish series, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomquist, and a host of the minor characters. It's been long enough since I read the first three that I can no longer tell exactly how this book matches those in its voice and tone, but it seems familiar. It's always disappointing to see another super-villain pop up to take the place of one who was vanquished in an earlier book, but that is what many of the heroes of modern thrillers face. Is Salander up to the challenge? Of course she is.
Spider's Web is a fun book despite the improbable coincidences, characters, and situations. It's not as violent as the first three, which is nice, though there is still a fair amount of blood. For a 400 page novel, though, it doesn't seem that too much actually happens. Fans of Larrson's series will enjoy this.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Periodic Table / Primo Levi, trans. by Ann Goldstein, 198 pp.

An autobiography, organized according to elements of the periodic table.  It sounds like a gimmick, except, of course, that Levi was a chemist and weaves episodes of his life into his experiences in the lab in a way that feels completely new.  So the chapter called 'Iron' tells of his friendship with Sandro, a fellow chemistry student in the days just before the war began.  Like Sandro, iron is an "easy and guileless element...incapable of hiding;" Sandro, too, is "honest and open" and, the reader learns, exceptionally tough, seemed "...made of iron, and he was bound to iron by an ancient kinship...," having descended from coppersmiths and blacksmiths.  Other chapters are less lyrical if no less powerful; 'Cerium' is a chapter from Auschwitz in which Levi steals cylinders of ferrocerium from the lab he is forced to work in. He and his friend Alberto survive their latter days in the camp by whittling the cylinders down to flint size in order to trade them for bread.  No less poignant and beautiful than If This Is a Man or Truce, one nevertheless sees in this more mature writing an author who feels free to write exactly what he pleases and in the manner he wishes, and in doing so creates something completely original.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Most talkative

Most talkative: stories from the front lines of pop culture / Andy Cohen 273 pgs.

Andy Cohen is a good Jewish boy from St. Louis.  This memoir tells of his childhood, his devotion to his mother and coming out to his friends and family.  Then, it moves on to his career by starting with his interview of Susan Lucci when he was in college.  Andy doesn't always come across as a real smooth operator and that is nothing but a good thing for the reader.

I listened to the audio version of this book which was read by Andy himself which convinced me this is a great choice for a title.  I wonder if he did the whole recording in one take?

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Black man in a white coat

Black man in a white coat: a doctor's reflections on race and  medicine / Damon Tweedy 294 pg.

Damon Tweedy accepted a scholarship to Duke medical school and from day one has the feeling of being an outsider.  His classmates are almost all out of more exclusive schools, they are almost all from economically better off backgrounds and most are white.  Tweedy begins to dread the part of his education that deals with how much more prevalent and deadly diseases and medical conditions are to the African American population. Every time this comes up, he feels like the class turns to look at him.  But then, when he starts his clinical experience, he sees this disparity first hand...and it is much more uncomfortable in real life than just hearing the statistics.  Tweedy's perspective is interesting. He is diagnosed with a chronic disease that is more common among African Americans and can relate all the more with his black patients that are struggling to be healthier.  Some of the stories in this book are universal...the struggle to fit in, the struggle to do well, the situations where the inexperienced doctor is giving advice to the older, more experienced patient.  I like the way Tweedy admits he doesn't know it all.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Natural Histories / Primo Levi, trans. by Jenny McPhee, 174 pp.

Short stories and sketches all themed on science and technology run amok with amusing and chilling results. There are chickens trained as government censors, a beautiful, frozen woman who is thawed annually as a sort of party trick, and a centaur who falls in love with a woman. Most effective are the connected stories of Mr. Simpson, a sales rep in Italy for the American company NATCA. The company are manufacturers of the Versifier, an elaborate machine which composes poems on demand, and a variety of other wizard-like gadgets, many of them startlingly prescient: the Minibrain, which fits in your pocket and will tell you " many among all the suicides throughout the world..were both left-handed and blond..." or the calometer, which snaps human faces and quantifies their beauty on a 100-point scale. Grim fun that reminded me a bit of Vonnegut.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Truce / Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein 200 pp.

This is the second title in volume one of this Complete Works.  Published in the 60s, it chronicles the 6-month period from the German departure from Auschwitz in late winter 1945 to Levi's return to Turin in the fall of that year.  When the SS abandoned the complex of camps that was Auschwitz, the great majority of prisoners were forced to march out, barely dressed and sometimes shoeless in the snow.  Most died.  At that time, Levi, who had been working in a chemistry lab at the camp, happened to be in the infirmary with scarlet fever and like other sick prisoners he was left behind.   Eventually Soviet troops came and Levi and others were shuttled to various sites within Soviet territory before being sent home.

It's obvious that at the time of this writing Levi maintained great affection for the Russian people, if not for the Soviet Union.   The chaotic (and often alcoholic) Russian management of these thousands of displaced persons would make for comical reading if the context were different.  Levi depicts his caretakers as spirited, generous, and, largely, benign, if exceedingly careless (Levi's word).  It's stunning to contemplate the situation of Levi and his fellows at the end of the war.  They were sick, weak, entirely without possessions or status, and  more than a thousand miles from home.  Considering their extreme vulnerability, their treatment at Russian hands seems admirable.  Levi fully evokes the claustrophobia and frustration of his odyssey in a way that will be hard to forget.


Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories introduced and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, 449 pages

In this collection, Niffenegger gathers together sixteen of her favorite ghost stories, including everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Ray Bradbury to Neil Gaiman to Kelly Link. The variety in these stories is excellent, as some are straightforward, some are spooky beyond all belief, and a couple are really pretty funny. My favorites were the uber-creepy "The Mezzotint" by M.R. James and "The Specialist's Hat" by Kelly Link, as well as the humorous entries from P.G. Wodehouse and Saki. Niffenegger did a great job bringing together old classics and new stories, and her wonderfully weird artwork sets off the stories perfectly.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Black Sheep

Black sheep:  the hidden benefits of being bad / Richard Stephens 249 pgs.

With chapters about sex, drinking, fighting, stress and death, this isn't a "how to" manual but it does give you some well researched support for some bad behavior.  The book grabs attention early with a story about a professor who punctuated his conference talk about "vaso-active therapy for erectile dysfunction" with a demonstration on a live subject...himself.  Not all of the chapters are quite as fun as *that* one.  Psychology has done a lot of studies and some of them can back up your bad behavior.  Science once again improves our lives!

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Monday, November 23, 2015

The Man Who Went up in Smoke / Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo / 183 pp.

This is the 2nd of the Martin Beck mysteries, written in the 1960s by the wife and husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo and set primarily in Stockholm.  Of these, the Laughing Policeman is my favorite so far.

This one is set primarily in Budapest, as Beck is sent there to find a Swede who checked into a hotel there and has since disappeared.  Still a well-plotted story, but something was missing here, and in conversation with an astute patron I think I've figured it out.  According to this patron, Stockholm is a character in these books, and when she's not around, the story loses interest.  (His example was the Harry Bosch story set in Hong Kong, in his opinion not nearly as good as the novels where Harry is on his home turf.  He also offered the Henning Mankell Wallander stories, in which Wallander occasionally goes abroad to solve his crimes.  But I still liked those.)

What do my fellow readers say?  Can you take a detective out of her favorite setting and still have a good story?

Working Stiff

Working stiff: two years, 262 bodies and the making of a medical examiner / Judy Melinek & T. J. Mitchell 258 pgs.

Judy Melinek started her training as a forensic pathologist at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner in July 2001.  She was steeped in training and dead bodies in September of that year when the events on the 11th took the work out into a tented parking lot filled with refrigerated trucks.  But this book is about so much more than the mass tragedies because tragic things happen every day.  Lots to learn in a big city like New York where people die all kinds of ways.  Dr. Melinek gives PLENTY of examples and a bit of her story along the way.

This book is kind of like a car might not like what you see but you can't seem to look away.  I listened to the audio book and my best recommendation is don't listen or read if it is near meal time.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, 341 pages

Harry's back for his second year at Hogwarts, full of more adventure and danger, particularly when an unknown assailant begins attacking students. This is the probably one-millionth time I've read this book (only a slight exaggeration), though it's the first I've read it with my children. They loved it, and spent all weekend waving wands (drumsticks) around and shouting, "Expelliarmus!" while pretending to be Harry and Hermione. Something tells me I'll be blogging about Book 3 before too long...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever by John Feinstein, 366 pages.

This was another of the books pulled from the list of those that had not left our shelves in a long while. I had always meant to read Feinstein. He's a well-regarded sportswriter, and many of his books circulate well. The fact that this one had not had a reader in while had me suspecting that it was one of those lesser books by a good writer. I was surprised to find out that this was not the case. The story Feinstein tells of a fateful night in 1977, when the Los Angeles Lakers played the Houston Rockets, and of the fight that broke out during the game was and is an interesting one.Kermit Washington, the Lakers power forward, was involved in a fight of sorts with the Houston center, Kevin Kunnert. As players from both teams rushed toward the altercation, Washington turned and punched one man who was running toward him, Rudy Tomjanovich. Tomjanovich was seriously injured. Both men were haunted by that split-second action, and though both continued to play, neither one had the career they seemed destined to have before that night. Feinstein does a great job of putting the events in context, of giving a balanced view of the incident and of the many consequences, and of letting all of the principals tell their stories.
This one is a keeper.
I also enjoyed reading a book that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a character as I was beginning to read Abdul-Jabbar's excellent novel, Mycroft Holmes.

Killing and Dying: Stories

Killing and Dying: Stories by Adrian Tomine, 121 pages.

A collection featuring odd, off-kilter stories that are really rather sweet and affecting, that are well-matched with straight-forward, realistic art. The stories veer toward tragedy, but are leavened with a bit of the absurd, and the author never lets his characters (for whom he seems to have a great deal of fondness) suffer needlessly or too deeply. I particularly like the way the surprises in the plots are presented in each of the tales, and how the characters deal with these twists and turns. "Hortisculpture" seemed a little goofy at first, but had more depth than expected. "Amber Sweet," "Go Owls," and the title story, particularly,  had such a sad nostalgic touch to them, with characters that were vulnerable and whose lives were artfully handled. I had just finished reading Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles before this and I was struck by the similarity in tone between the two books. This was the first book I have read by Tomine.  I heartily recommend this book, and look forward to reading more by the author.

Johnny U.: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas

Johnny U.: The Life and Times of John Unitas by Tom Callahan, 292 pages.
Uggh. I accidentally deleted the whole review of this book. It was very insightful and the most beautifully written book review I have ever written. Oh, well.
I got a Johnny Unitas football helmet back around 1966, so I always knew he was somebody. Callahan tells why Unitas was somebody, and how that all came about, but he doesn't necessarily tell it in a clear manner.
It is an interesting tale that should have made an interesting book. The narrative switches points of view frequently, and it's always assumed that you know who is talking, but sometimes the narrator is identified by name, sometimes by nickname, and sometimes it is someone who was talking a page or two ago. Often the book seems more like a series of loosely related articles than a single cohesive work. Not a necessary read for anyone.

My Venice and other essays

My Venice and other essays / Donna Leon 222 pgs.

Donna Leon has lived in Venice for a long time but still considers America home even though she has no intention of living here again.  This collection of essays on Venice, on music, on mankind and animals, on men, on American and on books is often humorous, always in insightful and a pleasure to read.  This collection is best read in small pieces so you can have time to digest and consider what the author has to say.  Recommended for those who enjoy intelligent women and well written short essays.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

If This Is a Man / Primo Levi 205 pp.

If This Is a Man is the first item in this massive, 3-volume, 3,000 page new Complete Works.  Because it was originally published as a stand-alone piece, I think it's fair to get credit for it as one item translated from Italian.  Levi wrote this shortly after his return from Auschwitz to Turin.

At this point I've read quite a few personal narratives of the Holocaust, and I now wonder how many of those writers weren't directly or unconsciously influenced by Levi.  It seems to me almost an alpha narrative, to which all the others are a sort of response.  Although Levi's experience was not particularly representative -  'only' one year in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew who was 'fortunate' to wind up assigned  to an indoor chemistry lab - it is so beautifully, intelligently, written, so free of melodrama, so carefully observed, that he seems to have laid the groundwork for the entire discussion of events that took place during the period.  He is especially astute regarding what it took to survive, and how, or whether, it was possible to remain a man throughout.

Stuart Woolf's  translation is fluid and unobtrusive.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates  152 pp.

I cannot adequately put into words my feelings about this important book except to say I am glad the author was honored with the National Book Award for putting into words the experience of living in black skin in this country and the false construct in the concept of "race" in this essay to his son. I believe everyone, regardless of the amount of melanin in their skin, should read this brief but very important book. As a white woman of privilege I have not, and never will have those experiences. However, I know from friends that here in the U.S. the "crimes" of walking/driving/just breathing while black can and too often does result in abuses of power by actual and supposed authority figures. But Coates also speaks of his days at Howard University, which he calls his Mecca. Coates message to his son is one of love, fear, and a pessimistic hope that somehow things will change.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Grow all you can eat in 3 square feet

Grow all you can eat in 3 square feet / Kate Johnsen (ed) 255 pgs.

When I first saw this on the cart, all I could think of was "they don't know how much I can eat" but really this isn't a book about surviving the apocalypse.  Although, if the apocalypse DOES come, I'm going to put some effort into consolidating some high quality potting soil.  How many of us have the dream of being a farmer?  Living off the land?  Well this book gives you a good starting point.  Start with 3 square feet and actually manage your crops and you can eat pretty well.  The recommendations for turning over your crop and replanting on a schedule make for continuous bounty.  This book is full of great ideas.  Now to consider getting my hands dirty...

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell, 238 pages

In an inconspicuous alley in England, a small iron door shows up every nine years. And whenever this door shows up, someone (a police officer, a student, a small boy and his mother) goes missing. Yes, the door and the disappearances are linked, but it's awfully hard to prove that when the mysterious door, and the grand Slade House to which it leads, are untraceable by the outside world.

I'm hesitant to describe any more of the plot of this compact horror story, though I'll happily say that it's good, spooky, and Gaimanesque in style. I love the atmosphere that Mitchell creates, and I particularly enjoy Mitchell's decision to let the victims tell their own story, with each section being told in first person. An excellent quick and spooky read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World / Seth M. Siegel 337 pp.

Siegel, lawyer, activist, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, traces Israel's remarkable about-face from a small, water-deprived, developing country to a water powerhouse.  Surprisingly readable and accessible, this is, considering there are a fair number of pages devoted to sewage, an inspiring, almost cheerful read.  Siegel believes that Israel's acquired expertise can be the key to saving many other countries teetering on the brink of water disaster, and while Israel is certainly idiosyncratic in many respects, Siegel convinces the reader that its technology, social engineering, and entrepreneurial flair just might be exportable, to the benefit of everyone.  Timely and thoughtful.

Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin  352 pp.

Dr. Grandin has made the study of animal behavior her life's work. This book is mainly a discussion on the unique behavior's of different species including domestic dogs and cats as well as farm animals. She also delineates problems in the meat, poultry, and egg industry and delineates ways in which the animals can and should be treated humanely up to and including the slaughtering process. Many of these improvements in animal handling are actually more cost effective than what is being done now. Most of the time just retraining the handlers is all that's necessary. Much of her understanding of animal behavior has been learned from her own close observation of animals and relates them to her own thought processes as an autistic person. She also bemoans the fact that much of the study in animal behavior is now done strictly through computer modeling rather than observation in the field when ideally, both methods should be used. This is an interesting and informative book, now if only all the animal producers would listen to her.


Ripper by Isabel Allende, 478 pages

It's winter in San Francisco, and a series of odd murders has flummoxed the SFPD. Thankfully, Deputy Chief Bob Martin is getting an assist from his teenage daughter, Amanda, and a crew of her friends, who have begun investigating the murders as an offshoot of their online game, Ripper. The tension ratchets up when Amanda's mom (and Martin's ex-wife) is kidnapped, possibly by the killer.

This is my first stab at reading Allende, who I'd heard great things about, and I've got to say, I was underwhelmed. Some of that can be blamed on the translation of Ripper, which resulted in plenty of awkward phrasings and repetition. But the story becomes so convoluted, and tries to weave in the back stories of way too many characters, and the blame for that lies solely with Allende. She admits in the acknowledgments at the end of the book that this was her first stab at a murder mystery; it shows, and unless she seriously ups her game, I hope this will be her last foray into that genre. Will I read another of her books? Maybe. But probably not until I get the bad taste of Ripper out of my mouth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best Kept Secret by Kent Harman  292 pp.

Many people do not realize that a large portion of the popular music recorded in the 1950s, 60s, & 70s was really performed by a collection of very talented studio musicians who were never credited on the albums featuring their talents. With the exception of a few, like Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Billy Strange, who went on to have successful musical careers outside of the studios, they are names few recognize. However, their music is known by millions from recordings by Sinatra, Streisand, The Beach Boys, Johnny Rivers, The Mamas & The Papas, The Carpenters, Simon & Garfunkel, and so many more. Some members of the Wrecking Crew toured in the bands with a variety of big name acts. Others moved into the production end of the business. These talented musicians were paid well for their work but also worked long hours, frequently late into the night. This is a very readable and fascinating look at the unsung heroes of the music industry. I enjoyed reading about what went into recording the songs I grew up with. And how many remember a thirty year old Glen Campbell being called an "overnight sensation" after he'd been working in the business since he was sixteen years old? Ah, show business.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Chestnut Street

Chestnut Street / Maeve Binchy 384 pgs.

In this series of short stories, all set somehow on Chestnut Street in Dublin, neighbors and acquaintances cross paths but each story stands on its own.  The relationships on display here vary from family, friends, neighbors, and even enemies.  All are trademark Binchy, some people have problems and often they are solved...some problems go unresolved.  Most of the stories are uplifting and positive but not sappy.  Binchy has a way of making you think you really KNOW the character even though the details are light.

I listened to this on audio and loved the reader's accent.  Very pleasurable audio.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Infinite Home

Infinite Home / Kathleen Alcott 315 pgs.

Edith has been a good landlady to a group of misfit renters for many years.  But now Edith is the one with the issues.  She is sinking into dementia and her evil son is trying to evict everyone and take over the property.  The various tenants are all dealing with their own problems.  Adeleine is agoraphobic and hasn't been out of house in months, Thomas is an artist recovering from a stroke.  Paulie is developmentally disabled, Edward is a depressed former stand-up comic...none of them have any place else to go but how can they stand up to the evil Owen and save Edith and their home?

This book follow the interesting stories of each character and how they work together to save an old lady and a life worth living.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Just Kids

Just Kids by Patti Smith  278 pp.

This is a beautifully written memoir of the author's life and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe beginning with their meeting on a NY street in the '60s and pretty much ending with Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989. Having only known of Smith through her music and Mapplethorpe through the infamous photo exhibition that caused such an uproar, I was unaware that the two were lovers, friends, and cohorts, as well as supporters of each other's varied artistic endeavors. It was a magical time to live in New York City and this book shows why. Tales of the other denizens of the Chelsea Hotel, Smith's work at Brentano's and Scribner's book stores and her evolution from poet into performer are all described in a lyrical way. I fully understand why it was a National Book Award winner. The disappointment for me was in listening to the audiobook read by the author. Smith's delivery is almost in monotone and heavy with her New Jersey accent. Her incessant use of the word "drawling" for drawing is off-putting along with other mispronunciations that abound in the reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Bastards: A Memoir by Mary Anna King, 248 pages

When she was little, Mary King lived in New Jersey with her mom, her older brother, her baby sister, and sometimes her dad. But when it becomes to much for her mom to handle, the baby sister is sent to live with Mary's grandparents in Oklahoma. A few years later, Mary and her brother join their little sister in Oklahoma, and Mary and her sister, Becca, are eventually adopted by their grandparents. Meanwhile, Mary's mother keeps getting pregnant, and ends up giving up four baby girls for adoption.

Bastards is Mary's account of losing and finding family, of trying to find her own place in her convoluted family. As someone who's intimately familiar with family trees that are shaped more like bushes, I found this to be an insightful memoir that doesn't shy away from the realities of stitched-together families.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Submission by Michel Houellebecq, 246 pages

It's 2022 and Francois is a 44-year-old academic who is, as he says, "about as political as a towel." His world revolves around 19th-century French novelist J.K. Huysmans, young coeds, and drinking vast amounts of wine. But while he's concentrating on these obsessions, a national election puts the Islamic party into national power, throwing France--and Francois--for a loop. Soon he's out of a job (since only Muslims can teach under the new regime) and becoming increasingly isolated and impotent (the modest dress imposed on French women certainly isn't helping in that regard). Should he throw aside all that he believes to convert and thus become employable? Or should he just drink himself to death? These seem to be his only choices.

I'll admit that I don't know a lot about French history or literature, and so felt a bit in-over-my-head in some of the discussions on those topics. However, Houellebecq presents an innately readable satire in his tale of a self-absorbed academic who is forced to consider politics on a personal level for possibly the first time in his life. Well worth a read.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin   260 pp.

When I started this novel about a curmudgeonly bookstore owner I wasn't sure I would like it but ended up loving it. A.J. Fikry, a widower, is the owner of a small bookstore on a Massachusetts island with a small year-round population and a influx of "summer people" in the warmer months. Fikry is very particular about what he sells and is, to put it mildly, a book snob. Needless to say, business is bad. When his precious rare copy of Poe's Tamerlane is stolen his life takes on a new sense of doom. But then the unexpected happens in the form of a small child left at the store with a note asking him to raise her there. The impossible becomes the improbable and Fikry ends up fostering, then adopting the girl. The whole town notices the change in him as he becomes more social and makes changes to his store. He even finds romance. I don't know what it is about this book that captured me so. Maybe it was the frequent references to different books that, for the most part, were ones I have read. Or it could have been some other indescribable quality. At any rate, I enjoyed it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Nightingale

The Nightingale / Kristin Hannah 440 pgs.

Vianne and Isabelle are sisters but have had a rough time of it after their mother died when they were very young.  Now war is afoot and different personalities and life situations put them in very different places.  Gutsy Isabelle almost immediately joins the resistance and puts herself at risk to save downed airmen. Vianne is struggling to keep her life together and her daughter safe while her husband is at war and her small town is taken over by the Germans including an officer her is billeted in her home.

The struggles of the time are horrifying but the heroic acts of both sisters are inspiring.  This is a pretty hefty book but every page was a pleasure to read.

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tram 83

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, 211 pages

An always-open, always-busy bar, Tram 83 serves as the hub of an unnamed seceded African city, the place at which miners come to drink beers and meet prostitutes after work, the place where both legitimate and below-the-table business deals are reached, the place where you can find anything and everyone you might be looking for. The plot of this short novel revolves around three people: Lucien, a penniless writer who has returned to the city-state to write his stage-play; Requiem, a kingpin of the city-state's underground who lets Lucien stay with him, despite holding a grudge against him; and Malingeau, a publisher and foreigner who keeps changing the terms under which he'll publish Lucien's text. And then there's Tram 83, which serves as the setting for most of the scenes in the book and gives the book life through the ever-present refrains from prostitutes, waitresses, miners, and tourists.

Reading this book is not easy, and is more akin to reading a jazz song. There are familiar refrains that pop up throughout the book, mixed in with long comma-filled sentences that feel something like an instrumental solo. So while it's a relatively short book, I found it best to approach it in small portions; it may be best read out loud, in a cadence that might be found at a poetry slam. This certainly isn't a book for everyone, but for those who care to brave it, the lyricism and rhythms of Tram 83 (both the book and the business) create an experience that isn't often found in books.

Last Friends / Jane Gardam 205 pp.

The final title in the Old Filth trilogy mops up the story of Filth, his wife Betty, and his enemy, friend, and wife's love Veneering.  The focus shifts to Veneering, just dead from a fall while vacationing in Malta, and alternates with the story of his early childhood and that of the few stragglers the plot has left behind:  Fred Fiscal-Smith, an attorney and hanger-on to the group, and Dulcie, the woolly widow of Betty's godfather, the judge known as Pastry Willy.  Terry Veneering's story is as well drawn as that of Filth and Betty; he's born in the north of England to a coal-peddler and a crippled Russian acrobat.  He is doomed (or fated) to love one woman his whole life who happens to be married to a man he detests, Old Filth himself.  But much of this novel is a sort of fade-out on the group, telling of the last days of Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith who almost by definition are less vital to the story.  And I was disappointed to note quite a few editorial fumbles this time, in particular a lot of bizarre uses of commas.  (Yes, I am a nit-picky ass, and not especially gifted with commas myself, but I must call these things as I see them.)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Man in the Wooden Hat / Jane Gardam 233 pp.

This is the second in the Old Filth (failed in London, try Hong Kong) trilogy, giving the reader the story of Elizabeth, Filth's wife.  Like Filth, she is a child of the Empire's Far East, and is also marked by youthful suffering: in her case, she and her parents were interned and nearly starved in a Japanese camp during World War II.  Betty and Filth have a strong marriage if a somewhat incomplete one; we learn here about Betty's long connection to Veneering, Filth's archenemy at the Hong Kong Bar, and to Veneering's beloved son Harry.  A bit slower to get rolling than Old Filth, but ultimately just as satisfying.  I am halfway through the third volume and will be sorry to finish.

Old Filth / Jane Gardam 290 pp.

The first in a trilogy, this is the story, told largely through reminiscences, of Sir Edward Feathers, better known as Old Filth. (Failed in London, try Hong Kong)  Filth has ended an eminent career as a barrister in Hong Kong and returned to Dorset with his wife Betty.  But before his seemingly tranquil life of comfort and privilege,. he had a tumultuous childhood as a 'Raj orphan.'  Told in dry, witty, and observant language, what stands out here is Filth's individuality.  The events of his life aren't symbolic and don't fit into neat boxes, but the delicately sketched experience reads like the truth.

The Question of the Missing Head

The Question of the Missing Head by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, 324 pages

Samuel Hoenig is not your average detective. He runs a one-man business called Questions Answered, in which he answers everything everything from "Where is my missing pet?" to "Will it be possible for a player to hit a home run that completely exits the new Yankee Stadium?" He's also got Asperger's Syndrome, which throws a wrench into the typical procedure of detecting but, as he sees it, gives him a special set of abilities that assist in his profession. This book, the first of a series, sees Samuel attempting to answer the question, "Where is Rita Masters-Powell's frozen head?", which has gone missing from the cryonics facility that was storing it. When the missing head question leads to a murder case, Samuel finds himself attempting to answer a question much harder than any other ever set before him.

Samuel is a great character, as is his accidental sidekick Janet Washburn, and the mystery is certainly a good one, filled with red herrings and plot twists. I particularly like how Samuel's Asperger's plays into his crime-solving abilities. That said, there are times that Copperman and Cohen are a bit heavy-handed in their descriptions of Asperger's, perhaps in an attempt to make sure that any reader fully understands the disorder. I suppose that's all well and good for someone who is completely unfamiliar with autism spectrum disorders, but for fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Rosie Project, it can seem a bit patronizing. I hope that the teaching element peters out as the series continues, because the authors have created a great character with a lot of potential. Fans of cozy mysteries, Monk, and/or the aforementioned Curious Incident and Rosie Project will enjoy this one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Twerp by Mark Goldblatt  275 pp.

I didn't blog this one when I first read it because I was zipping through choices for my 4th-6th grade book club. I just reread it in preparation of our book discussion and found I liked it even better the second time around. Julian "Twerp" Twerski is essentially a good kid, doing the things that sixth graders did for fun in the late 1960s: silly and sometimes dangerous stunts involving firecrackers and high places, made up games, running races, first crushes on girls, etc. However, one incident that went horribly wrong gets Julian and his buddies suspended from school for a week. The nature of the incident is not revealed until the end. The book is in the format of a journaling assignment made by Julian's English teacher in exchange for getting out of a writing a paper on Shakespeare. Julian hates Shakespeare. The teacher's ultimate goal is getting Julian to look at the incident that got him suspended and another kid injured. Eventually the journal writing becomes less of a homework assignment and more of an obsession. It takes until after the school year ends before Julian writes about the incident and urges his buddies to go with him to make an apology to the victim. It's a good story but some of the philosophical ideas Julian discusses in his journal are quite a bit beyond what sixth graders, even gifted ones, would think about (but is great fodder for book club discussions). And I didn't know any 6th graders in 1969 (including me) that studied Shakespeare. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Abraham: the World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer / Alan M. Dershowitz 188 pp.

I was surprised by the readability and fresh tone of this somewhat unfocused overview.  Dershowitz looks at the faceted nature of the Abraham of scripture and how these different Abrahams can all be found throughout Jewish legal history.  Specifically, there is the Abraham who smashes his father's idols, the Abraham willing to obey God's demand to sacrifice his son, Isaac, or Dershowitz' preferred Abraham, the one who argued with God about the fate of the residents of Sodom.  Specific profiles of Jewish lawyers throughout history were interesting; Felix Frankfurter, for example, refused to use his power in the FDR administration to apply pressure to raise the numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf  179 pp.

Spoilers ahead. This slim book chronicles the gentle relationship between two lonely septuagenarians. In a small Colorado town, widowed Addie Moore calls her neighbor, the widower Louis Waters to invite him to spend the night just as a comfort to each other. They spend their nights together lying in bed, holding hands, and talking, nothing more. When the town begins to talk about them, they go public with their slightly more than friendship. Addie's and Louis' children protest the relationship because of their age--unmarried old people sleeping together, the horrors!--even though at that point no sex had occurred. And Addie's son, an emotionally damaged man, is convinced Louis wants to marry her and take her money. Louis and Addie have a nice summer and Louis becomes friends with Addie's young grandson. In the end Addie succumbs to her son's emotional blackmail and breaks off her relationship with Louis. That whole situation sparked a lot of emotion in me, mostly anger that Addie's son is treating his mother the way he does and that she does not stand up to him. I know if one of my kids pulled that on me I wouldn't go down without a fight, but I think they know that. :-)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mr Smith goes to prison

Mr. Smith goes to prison: What my year behind bars taught me about America's prison crisis 272 pgs.

Jeff Smith was a Missouri political wonder kid right up until he was sentences to prison for filing a false affidavit to an Federal Election Commission complaint.  Smith served a year and a day for this infraction at the Federal Correctional Institution, Manchester in Kentucky. Needless to say, prison was quite an education for Smith, whose education includes and Phd.  The observations and experience in the system really do illuminate the prison crisis.  Despite years of teaching experience, Smith was not allowed to work in the educational area but instead, was assigned to the warehouse where he unloaded trucks all day.

Smith isn't the first one to point out that our corrections system is broken but his interesting perspective should be considered when lawmakers attempt to fix the system.

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October totals

Aren't you thankful for Muggle candy
this Halloween?

Amy  2/961
Christa  13/4032
Kara  10/3452
Karen  10/2375
Kathleen  8/2229
Linda  2/1036
Patrick  15/5093

Total: 60/19,178

This is your life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

In the mid-fifties, Ralph Edwards hosted a popular TV show that foreshadowed reality TV – guests on the show, often well-known, but not always, were surprised on camera with a recounting of their lives complete with appearances from long-lost childhood friends, family, old colleagues, etc.  Using this device, the author recounts, back and forth in time, the life of Harriet Chance, nee Nathan.  The only child of a doting father and demanding mother, she is now 78.  Bernard, her husband of over fifty years has recently died after precipitously declining into Alzheimer’s, but somehow he keeps popping up and engaging her in conversation.  Her adult children are worried, and their worry increases when she decides to go an Alaskan cruise that she recently learned Bernard had purchased at a charity auction the year before.  The framing device fails to make the book much more interesting than Harriet’s rather conventional life.  The surprises that are revealed to her in her 79th year are primarily unhappy ones.  The book is billed as a “lovely, forgiving character study,” but I actually thought it a bit cruel to the main character.  Not my cup of tea.  296 pp.