Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ardennes: 1944, The Battle of the Bulge

Ardennes: 1944, The Battle of the Bulge by Anthony Beevor, 451 pages.
Beevor's account of Hitler's last big offensive on the Western Front during World War II.
Against the advice of his general staff, Hitler committed close to thirty divisions, including hundreds of tanks and aircraft to a counter-offensive through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and through Luxemburg, in the hopes of splitting the Allied forces, closing the port of Antwerp, and in the hope of ultimately, causing a split between the British and American armies. While the German army fell far short of these goals, they were able to catch the Allies almost completely by surprise, and through fierce fighting, and with the help overcast weather that negated Allied air superiority, the Nazi forces were able to split the forces of the 12th Army Group and advance almost all the way to the Meuse River, throwing the Allied forces into disarray from December 16, 1944 through early January.
U.S. General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group, was taken completely off guard and found his forces split.
Because his headquarters ended up on one side of the bulge, and communications with troops on the other side were difficult, Bradley temporarily lost command of the northern half of his forces to British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, a man he loathed. Bradley was not at his best during these crucial weeks. Beevor, in his even-handed account, considers none of the allied commander above criticism, pointing out the failings of such celebrated heroes as Bradley, George Patton, Montgomery, and Dwight Eisenhower. Beevor pulls no punches concerning Montgomery, whose ceaseless self-promotion, and complete lack of subtlety and self-awareness when dealing with the press, with his fellow generals, and with Eisenhower, caused him throw away any good will he had gained with the Americans during the Ardennes campaign. The fractures never went quite as deep as Hitler had imagined they would, and the alliance held together.
By the second week of January, the German forces were in retreat. The losses of men, arms, and armor suffered by the Germans may have been slightly smaller than those suffered by the Allies, but the German forces had far fewer replacements. While there are many accounts of this series of battles, Beevor offers detail that others missed, incisive commentary, and an even hand. Highly recommended.
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The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984, A Graphic Biography

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984, A Graphic Biography by Riad Sattouf,  154 pages, translated from the French by Sam Taylor.
Sattouf tells the tale of his childhood moving between his mother's native France and Libya and Syria, where his father grew up and hoped to work.
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Rhythm Ride

Rhythm Ride: A Roadtrip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney  166 pp.

In 1959 Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to begin a recording company in Detroit. He enlisted teenagers from his neighborhood like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and others to develop what would come to be known as the Motown Sound. During the years of the Civil Rights movement, the music of Motown played an important part. This book covers the rise of many of the performers that I first heard as a child, and tells the story of Gordy's influence and vision.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 333 pages.

I re-read this one for book group this year.
Mandel's award-winning novel joins Colson Whitehead's Zone One in the new-ish category of beautiful and moving post-apocalyptic adventures.
The book opens at a production of King Lear, on the very night the world changes, and then picks up the story Post-A, following a troupe of actors and musicians as they make their way through a dangerous, grim and crazy world. Finely wrought characters, interesting setting, and a good grasp of the story. Well worth the read.

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The Red Notebook

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain  159 pp.

This sweet story is the tale of Parisian bookseller, Laurent, who finds a lady's purse abandoned on top of a trash can. Fearing some poor woman has been mugged, he attempts to turn it in to the police who are too busy to deal with it. Laurent takes the handbag home and then commits the ultimate sin...he goes through the purse in a search for the owners identity. In addition to ordinary items--lipstick, etc.-- he finds a small red notebook filled with random, observations made by the owner. Laurent is intrigued and begins the search for the mysterious woman in earnest. The question is will he find her and form a lasting relationship with the missing owner of the purse? I really enjoyed this small book.


Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, 326 pages.

The late Oliver Sacks published this interesting, engaging, and detailed account of the variety of hallucinations from which people can suffer in 2012, three years before his death.
He examines different auditory, visual, tactile, and aural hallucinations. He also delves into all sorts of different causes. The book and the details of the cases are all up to the high standard one expects of one of the leading medical writers.

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The Dante Connection

The Dante Connection by Estelle Ryan  360 pp,

This is the second book in the series about autistic insurance investigator Genevieve Lenard. When her cohorts from the first book have seemingly abandoned her just when she was developing real friendships with then. When expert hacker, Francine, appears at her doorstep beaten and bloody, Genevieve learns that Colin, Vinnie, and Francine had all been continuing the investigation of the villainous Kubanov who was also introduced in the first book. Now Genevieve is Kubanov's target and she must decipher intricate codes connected to the written works of Dante. As a mystery, the story is adequate. It is the interplay of the characters that make this series intriguing.

Mycroft Holmes

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 328 pages.
Basketball great and noted historian, Abdul-Jabbar turns his keen eye toward the world created by Arthur Conan Doyle. His story focuses on Sherlock Holmes's older brother. Joined by Cyrus Douglas, his friend and tobacconist, Holmes heads for Trinidad to discover the truth behind a werewolf-like creature that has been exsanguinating  local children, and to find what has become of Holmes's fiancee. Unlike many other Holmes tales,Abdul-Jabbar's brings his characters face-to-face with issues of racism and slavery.
A very good, very satisfying mystery.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James  704 pp.

One amateur reviewer described this Man Booker prize winner as well rendered and difficult. I have to agree. There are so many characters it needs a list to explain who they are. The story is told by several different characters, often using Jamaican slang that can be difficult to decipher. As for the seven killings of the title, there are many more than that. The story takes place in the political and social unrest in Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s, centered around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley. On the political side there are two main parties, one funded by the CIA and the other supported by Castro's Cuban regime. It's a gritty view of the race and class conflicts throughout that time period. The Medellin Drug Cartel, crooked politicians, racist and violent police, opportunists, criminals, and victims combine in story that is extremely violent and frequently hard to stomach. This isn't an easy book to read.

Odd and the Frost Giant

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, 117 pages.
Odd, a twelve-year-old in the land of the Norse,ends up living with his new step-father and step-siblings after his father dies on a Viking raid and his mother remarries. He's unhappy at home, and has left himself lame after an accident with his father's axe. When he runs away from home and ends up befriending several Norse gods, who are in need of some assistance, his luck, and his life changes.

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How to be both, by Ali Smith

Experimental literary fiction which was by turns amazing and annoying.  There are two interrelated tales here, one set in 2014, the other in 1460.  Evidently, copies of the novel vary as to which story is first in the book.  In mine, it was the current one – sixteen year old George, short for Georgia, reflects on the visit she, her younger brother, and her mother took to see a fresco  in Ferrara Italy shortly before her mother’s untimely death, as she tries to deal with this tremendous loss.  In the second half, we see George through the eyes of the little-known artist of the fresco.  The first part is rather pedestrian but well written.  The second has many flashes of brilliant writing, but one has to work really hard to figure out what is going on.  I found it rather exhausting.  372 pp.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, 435 pages
This is one of our road-trip favorites. My (soon-to-be) four-year-old refers to any audiobook as "Harry Potter."
Jim Dale does an excellent job of reading all the books (he reads the Peter and the Starcatchers series, too)
This, the third book in the series, is one of the most fun before things get really serious for the main characters.
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The clasp, by Sloane Crosley

A modern day take on Guy de Maupassant’s  The necklace.  College friends, ten years out, reunite at a wedding of one of their own, a hotel heiress, Caroline, marrying a young man, Felix, of German heritage.  Victor has just lost his job at a failing search engine start-up.  Nathaniel is handsome, sought after, and beginning to realize that he really isn’t going to hit it big in Hollywood.  Kezia has given up a well-paying job in the industry to work, for a pittance, for a trend-setting jewelry designer.  Their latest design has a flaw in the clasp that causes it to fall off – just like in the old short story.  The three principle characters have “history,” and that is still very much a part of their interactions.  When Victor drunkenly falls asleep in the bedroom of the groom’s mother, she shares the secret of a hidden drawer bureau, and a drawing that could the THE necklace, now lost by her family.  This sets in motion a romp across France.  Diverting and clever.  372 pp.

The effortless sleep method

The effortless sleep method: the incredible new cure for insomnia and chronic sleep problems / Sasha Stephens 190 pg.

If you have tried pills and sleep restriction therapy, stop that now and try the effortless sleep method.  First off, be honest with yourself about your sleep behavior and your problems.  Part of the effortless sleep method is not sabotaging yourself from the start.  Many good suggestions are included here.

Mission to Paris

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, 255 pages.
Set right before the war and taking place mostly in France, Mission to Paris follows Frederic Stahl, now a famous Hollywood actor, but a former Austrian citizen, who served briefly in a German government office during WWI. On loan to a Parisian studio, Stahl is contacted by his former co-workers, who seek to recruit him to the Nazi cause.

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Lafeyette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, 288 pages.
I was lucky enough to hear the author speak about the book this past summer and to receive an advance copy of the book. Vowell was an excellent speaker and the stories she told about Lafayette, the revolutionary war, and writing this book were fascinating. The book itself is just as good. Vowell does a great job setting the scene and presenting the backgrounds of her historical characters, some of whom are familiar to many readers and some of whom are less well known.
A fun and educational read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 214 pages.

Two sisters, ostracized by their small town neighbors, try to get by on their own after their parents died under mysterious circumstances.
Crazy and fun, the characters are interesting and you don't much mind their murderous impulses.

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The Good Fairies of New York

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar, 242 pages

Two Thistle Fairies, banished from their native Scotland, try to help two New Yorkers find love and happiness. Along the way they accidentally start a war with the local fairy population, bring down their fairy leadership, and help locate the late Johnny Thunder's long-lost guitar.
Kind of enjoyable, but a bit meandering and disjointed.

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The Seven Good Years: A Memoir

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret, 171 pages, translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, Anthony Berris.
Memoir from an Israeli author, concerning his life on the writer's circuit, his life at home, and his young son.
Lots of good stuff here.

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Make Me

Make Me by Lee Child, 402 pages.
In the 20th Jack Reacher novel, the former military policeman, now roamer and vagabond, decides to get off the train at a small town in the middle of nowhere because he is curious as to the origin of its name. He quickly and inadvertently becomes embroiled in the search for a missing private investigator.
There's a little too much detail about the sadistic habits of the bad guys, and the climactic shoot-out seemed too similar to others in the series, but other than that, it is a satisfying thriller. Reacher fans will enjoy.
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The Turner House

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, 341 pages.

A great book filled with interesting characters that follows the Turner family and their house on Yarrow Street through the fifty years the family lived there. Several years after their father, Francis, has died, and their mother, Viola, has moved in with her oldest son, the Turner children must decide what to do with their childhood home. It's in a depressed part of Detroit, and thanks to some unwise mortgage decisions, it's only worth a tenth of what is owed to the bank. The narrative jumps back and forth through time adroitly, telling the story of Francis and Viola's rocky early years, through the childhoods of the 13 siblings, and into their current lives, filled with schemes, misunderstandings, and interesting situations. A great read.

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H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, 307 pages, audio read by the author.
MacDonald recounts the devastating loss of her beloved father and her attempts to raise and train a Goshawk, whom she names Mabel. Running parallel to the author's difficulties with the Gos is her re-examination of  a book she read during childhood, T. H. White's The Goshawk. It all makes for a fascinating story.
The author does an excellent job of reading the audiobook.
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, 435 pages

This, the third in the series, is my favorite of all the Harry Potter books, so I was delighted to find that my son loved it as much as I do. Filled with the uber-creepy dementors, a scary escaped prisoner, and the coolest map in the world, Muggle or wizard, this book is just awesome. On to the Goblet of Fire!


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, 260 pages.

A grim story of a depressed, colorless young woman living with her crazed alcoholic father, working in a juvenile prison, who makes some bad choices.
Not a book for anyone looking for a feel-good moment.
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Crooked by Austin Grossman, 355 pages.
Nixon's rise to power tracked as a result of occult secrets he observes and investigates along the way, with Henry Kissinger as one of the most powerful sorcerers of the ages. It's a fun read, but it doesn't quite match the power and imagination of the author's Soon I Will Be Invincible.

The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David Brooks, 300 pages.
Commentator Brooks looks at the lives of Samuel Johnson, St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, and others. He leads us on a journey, gathering examples, trying to see what it is that we mean when we discuss a person's character.
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The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year by Matt McCarthy, 323 pages.

McCarthy is an interesting writer, willing to be the butt of hs own jokes, to show the comic foibles in his character. His writing seems honest. And he is not quite as depressed about the state of medicine as many other physicians. A good read. Christa recommended this book. Her review is here.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson, 318 pages

Better known as The Blogess, Lawson has made a name for herself writing hilarious (and often hilariously inappropriate) blog posts about her life. In Let's Pretend This Never Happened, the hilarity continues with stories about her childhood in west Texas, being raised by a possibly insane taxidermist for a father and possible patron saint of patience for a mother. Also included are several discussions of her adult life, including the odd relationship she has with her husband (it seems that most of their arguments revolve around zombie invasions or late-night purchases of taxidermied animals), her career in human resources, and the odd upbringing she's providing for her daughter. Mixed in are a few less-hilarious, but still interesting, chapters about her battle with mental illness, the trouble she had in carrying a baby to term, and the diagnosis and treatment of her rheumatoid arthritis (OK, that last one is actually pretty funny, what with the stuff about acupuncture).

This book is not for the faint of heart. You have to be ready to read plenty of expletives, lots of discussions of genitalia, and plenty of horrifying scenes of dead animals. But if you're up for it, you'll laugh until your sides hurt.