Monday, February 29, 2016

The 6:41 to Paris

The 6:41 to Paris / Jean-Philippe Blondel  146 pgs.

Cécile and Philippe had a brief but important affair in their early 20's.  It ended poorly mostly because Philippe was a real ass.  Now, 26 years later, they find themselves sitting next to each other on the train.  Cécile, once a plain girl with an interesting personality has turned into a well put together and more beautiful woman. Philippe, who was once the stunner hasn't aged well and is doughy and could not be mistaken for any younger than his actual age.  Cécile is still pretty mad about the way their relationship ended.  Philippe feels bad about it.  Neither wants to be the first to speak on the train.  Neither is sure the other recognizes their seat mate.  The book alternates between the two characters and fills you in on their past, and lives.  Amazing for its suspense...are they going to talk or not?

Read and find out! 

Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese

Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, 140 pages.
This book was added to the library's collection in January of 1971, just a little over a year after the Delmar location opened. Linda Ballard was a librarian then, as was Shirley Goldberg. I wonder if they were happy when this book came in. I wonder who ordered it. It's a beautiful collection of poems. Rexroth translated these poems of love, longing and loss, written
Many of them are short, unadorned, and cutting, like Ch'ang Ch'u Ling's poem, "Since you left" which was written in the late 600s or early 700s, during the T'ang Dynasty:

Since you left, my lover,
I can't take care of myself.
I do nothing but think of you.
I fade like the waning of the moon.

and an anonymous poem from the time of the Six Dynasties (whenever that might have been, Rexroth assumes we know some things here).

What is the matter with me?
With all the men in the world,
Why can I think only of you?

Others in the collection are longer, lyrical but just as mournful.
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Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World's Most Unusual Libraries

Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World's Most Unusual Libraries by Alex Johnson, 240 pages.
Pictures of mobile libraries, some on wheels, and some on the backs of pack-animals form one part of this interesting books. Libraries found on boats, in resorts, and in trees are also found throughout. This was inspirational and a lot of fun to read.
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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, 266 pages.
Michael Lewis does an excellent job explaining Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations, and how, in part, the financial and housing markets melted down in 2008. He tells the story, and explains the terms by talking to the people who saw the melt-down coming, and the people who did not. These were the money men, the ones who received millions of dollars per year to steer clear of this kind of disaster. Kind of bleak in the end, since the post-2008 reforms were cosmetic, and we're left with an unstable system that could easily melt again.
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Dreams by Sigmund Freud

Dreams by Sigmund Freud, 120 pages.
Five lectures by Freud, all part of Freud's larger work, The Interpretation of Dreams. It's difficult for anyone who has watched too much Bugs Bunny, Gilligan's Island, or any of countless other cartoons and crappy comedies to take Freud or his sexy, sexy interpretation of the dreams we all have too seriously. Houses, ladders, repetitive motion, forests, caves and snakes are all obviously sexual to the founder of psychoanalysis, with no room for a fish-dream just being a fish-dream.
Freud's lecture style, with his "you would say, about this dream something obvious and rather stupid. I would counter with something so devastatingly inspired that you must admit, once again, that I am correct." gets old quick.

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750 Years in Paris: a Graphic Novel / Vincent Mahe, unpaged

I enjoyed this depiction of Paris history through the story of one building.  Mahe uses a limited color palette to great effect, and has a fine eye for details - posters fixed to the walls, broken bottles, etc., that illuminate.  There is a brief timeline in the back which I suspect was translated by someone, although I can't find the evidence for that...

The Guns of August / Barbara Tuchman, 606 pp.

It's easy to see why this 1962 work, outlining the first month of WWI, is still so popular.  Although the prevailing image of that war is of long, static years in the trenches, Tuchman lays out the action-packed beginning of the conflict and the circumstances which led to the later stalemate.

Told from the point of view of the politicians and generals who directed the action, this is amazingly suspenseful stuff.  I love Tuchman's flair with language:

Joffre arrived early at lend him sangfroid out of his own bottomless supply...

With their relentless talent for the tactless, the Germans chose to violate Luxembourg at a place was Trois Vierges (three virgins)...

Rennenkampf...could not, fling himself after the fleeing enemy to pluck the final victory...

And if Tuchman makes frequent use of received cliches about the national characteristics of the various players - the Germans are rigid and brutal, the French passionate and prone to bursting into tears, the Russians sloppy and powerful, and the English self-interested and perfidious- she balances this out with an immense amount of detail about each of the many actors in this drama so that the effect is lively and (almost) fun.

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 402 pages

Since he was a small child, Quentin has been obsessed with the Narnia-esque world of Fillory, brought to life through a series of kids' books. When he's a senior in high school, he learns that magic is real and that Fillory may not be as fictitious as he once thought. He's soon admitted to Brakebills, a mysterious and highly competitive magical university, where he learns to hone his magical abilities, particularly while dealing with the massive hangovers he gets from hanging out with his close-knit group of carousing friends.

Since a large chunk of this book involves a regular person suddenly gaining entry into a previously unknown magical world, there are plenty of comparisons between The Magicians and Harry Potter. But make no mistake: the sex, drugs, alcohol, and gritty danger of The Magicians make it a poor comparison. Both the Magicians trilogy (of which this is Book 1) and the Harry Potter series have their place in the world of fantasy novels, and both are fantastic, (and yes, both involve magical schools) but that's about all they have in common. I can't wait to see what's next in this thoroughly engrossing series.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Divine Comedy / adapted by Seymour Chwast 127 pgs.

Brilliantly illustrated version of Dante's Divine Comedy.  I picked this up because the authors name is so interesting and, of course, who doesn't love a good story about hell?

5 @ 55: the 5 essential legal documents you need by age 55

5 @ 55: the 5 essential legal documents you need by age 55 / Judith D Grimaldi & Joanne Seminara 141 pgs.

This book is short and sweet with just enough hair raising examples to make you take their advice seriously.  The idea is that by 55 you are at a solid place in your life to make decisions about your health, your assets and how to leave things if you become incapacitated.  All of the advice comes from lawyers who have handled estates law and seen the worst and best case scenarios. I'm sure the advice is good - don't wait to deal with these issues.

Once in a great city: a Detroit story

Once in a great city: a Detroit story / David Maraniss 457 pgs.

Focused on 1963, this is a story of everything great in Detroit.  A manufacturing powerhouse thanks to the Big Three auto makers, visionary city leaders that came VERY close to landing the 1968 Olympic games, Motown, promising civil rights and race is really a city on top of the world.  So what happened?  Maraniss shows that signs of the upcoming problems were around even in 1963.  Detroit took it on the chin in many ways following its years of glory...could that have been prevented?  Was the decline inevitable?  I think Maraniss does a good job of discussing the change that was going on even as the city was on top.

Ban en Banlieue

Ban en Banlieue / Bhanu Kapil  190 pgs.

There are words on each page of this book.  They are all words that I recognize but put together, they seem to mean nothing to me.  I guess I'm just not smart enough to understand this all.  I'm willing to accept this and move on with my life.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Get in Trouble

Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link, 336 pages.
Kelly Link's stories are so imaginative, so fully formed, and so engrossing that I found myself wishing this was a far longer work. The stories are so different, all in their own complete world, each exploring themes of our relationships with the world and with others, but each looking from a different angle, skewed in such a way that you see something that you hadn't imagined before "Secret Identity" has a twist that I won't discuss, but it's told by a young woman ("almost sixteen!") who may have misled her thirty-two year-old online boyfriend ("he's not a pervert"). He may have misled her, too though, and not about his age.
"Origin Story" unfolds with a super-hero returning to his small-town home and reconnecting with his high-school sweetheart who was also his first sidekick. Again, everyone has their secrets.
I listened to over half of this on downloadable audio. The stories are each read by a different narrator and they are uniformly excellently done.
Great reading, great listening, great fun.
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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe, 61 pages.
Randall Munroe, best know for his online comic XKCD, expands on one his most popular of those, "Up Goer Five" with this series of drawings explaining plate tectonics, skyscrapers, the human body, and datacenters, all with the explanations given using only the most commonly used one-thousand words.Fun and informative.
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The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The Art of War by Sun Tzu, 178 pages.
Our Overdrive catalog has an audio version of this (presumed) 5th Century BCE work by "Master Sun."
This classic work, laying out military theory in 13 parts, from planning, tactics and maneuvering and marching an army, through the use of spies has inspired despots, freedom fighters, generals and angry teens throughout the ages.
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Olympic Butter Gold

Olympic Butter Gold by Jonathan Moody, 94 pages.

Award-winning poet and high-school teacher Moody has published a collection of fun, lyrical, and engaging poems thematically linked by references to superheroes, Eighties Hip-Hop, popular culture and its intersection with B-Boy culture (or the other way around) all melded with his life. He brings in references to his military upbringing in many of the poems, like "Operation Just Cause, 1989" and "Deployed."
Later, in the section entitled ""Lovelust a la Mode" he reminisces about a former girlfriend;

"At Elgin Air Force Base, rumors
about my frist girlfriend traveled
at the speed of sound. . .

She doesn't know who her real
folks are. It's a toss-up
 between Bessie Smith
& Charlie Parker, but she has more
Godfathers Than the Zulu nation."

His poems in the last section, "Ronda Final (Already)," express Moody's thoughts about, among other things, race, rap, and the fault-lines in America around these topics. Poems like "Gothic Barkley," and "2084 (from Ghetto Fabulous to Ghetto Facsist)" give this collection a strong finish.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

So, Anyway...

So, Anyway... by John Cleese  392 pp.

This memoir by Monty Python alum, John Cleese is mainly about his unexpected evolution into the world of acting. He does touch briefly upon his childhood, growing up in a fairly traditional, middle class, British home and his personal life. More time is spent on his education, attending public (what we call private) school and later Cambridge where he began his acting career. Of course, there is lots of humor in the writing both in his style and in the anecdotes about working with the Pythons (Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Cleese's ex-wife Connie Booth), David Frost, Marty Feldman, and others. He often describes real life situations which were later twisted into some of the zanier Python sketches. It is not unusual to be reading along as he tells about fairly ordinary experiences when a sudden turn of phrase leaves you laughing out loud. Fans of "Monty Python's Flying Circus", "Fawlty Towers", and "A Fish Called Wanda" will enjoy this one.

Yes, My Accent is Real

Yes, My Accent is Real: and some other things I haven't told you by Kunal Nayyar  245 pp.

Kunal Nayyar is best known as the character "Raj" on the television show "Big Bank Theory". In a series of anecdotes, Nayyar chronicles his life from his childhood in New Delhi, India through his college education in the U.S. (University of Portland and Temple University), early acting jobs, landing on "Big Bang" and his marriage to an Indian model. While many of the episodes are amusing, he also touches on more serious topics, and occasionally waxes philosophical. I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by the author.

The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky

The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler, 230 pages

Auggie Jones lives with her Grandpa Gus in Willow Grove, MO.  He’s a junk hauler and Auggie loves spending summertime riding with him to the local junkyard.  But as summer ends, things in Willow Grove change.  Auggie’s neighborhood school has been closed so she must go to a different school – Dickerson Elementary.  But Auggie and her friends are different from the students at Dickerson.  And Victoria, a long-time Dickerson student, makes sure they don’t forget it.

Victoria has it out for Auggie.  First, she steals Auggie’s best friend.  Then she announces her position as a junior member of the House Beautification Committee.  Victoria has her sights set on Auggie’s rundown neighborhood.  If Auggie can’t clean up her neighborhood, it will be torn down.  Auggie gets inventive and begins turning junkyard scraps into decorations to make her house beautiful – but the people on the City Council don’t always see things the way Auggie does.  To find out if Auggie is able to turn trash into treasure and save her neighborhood, read The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky.

Written by a Missouri author, this 16-17 Mark Twain Readers Award nominee shows younger readers the beauty to be found in unlikely objects, and that all communities – classy or shabby – have their own points of pride.

A Million Ways Home

A Million Ways Home by Dianna Dorisi Winget, 242 pages

12-year-old Poppy Parker has lived with Grandma Beth all her life – until 11 days ago, when Grandma Beth suffered a stroke.  Now Poppy has to live in a children’s home while Grandma Beth gets better.  While on her way to visit Grandma Beth, Poppy witnesses a horrible crime – in fact, she’s the only witness.  To ensure her safety during the investigation, Poppy will stay with a police officer's family.

Poppy’s temporary home is much better than the children’s home, and she even gets to volunteer at an animal shelter where she takes an interest in a problem-dog with an uncertain future.  But Poppy won’t stay here forever – only until Grandma Beth gets better, or the suspect of the investigation is caught.  What Poppy wants most is for Grandma Beth to get better so they can be together again – but instead she seems to be getting worse.  Will things go back to the way they were for Poppy and Grandma Beth?  Find out by reading A Million Ways Home.

A 16-17 MT Readers Award nominee, and a touching read.  Readers  experience how the main character faces difficult changes – with both grace and impulse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Home: How Habitat Made Us Human / John S. Allen, 292 pp.

A look at home from the perspectives of neurology, psychology, anthropology,  and economics.  Allen, a neuroanthropologist, argues that evolution has made us home-makers, and sees our relationship to home as distinctly human.  A nice, not overly-academic read; you won't find big revelations here, but you might discover familiar ideas expressed in new ways.  His discussion of homelessness among the mentally ill, for example, says, "...schizophrenia...lead(s) to difficulties maintaining relationships, and home is about the relationship of a person with a place."  Thoughtful.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, 352 pages

In the not-too-distant future, the real world has become a vast wasteland as most of the population spends its time logged into OASIS, a fully functioning simulated world, where people can buy, sell, learn, meet up, and go on various adventures through their avatars. The story begins on the day that James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, dies without heirs, leaving his entire fortune to the first person who is able to find the Easter egg he has hidden in OASIS. Ready Player One is the story of that quest, and of one poor kid from Oklahoma who incredibly becomes a front-runner in the race.

This book is a lot of fun. It's packed with geeky references to the 1980s, everything from movies to music to classic arcade games to D&D to books and more. This should be required reading for anyone who considers him- or herself a geek. Awesome book.

American Housewife

American Housewife by Helen Ellis, 188 pages

In this collection of short stories, Ellis offers up some sharp humor about the travails of the upper-middle-class housewife. Particularly fun are "How to Be A Patron of the Arts," about a woman who slowly gives up her writing ambitions; "Dumpster Diving with the Stars," about a reality show; and "The Wainscoting War," a wicked back-and-forth between two combative apartment neighbors. It's quick, it's hilarious, and well worth the read.

All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, 316 pages

Patricia and Laurence were two oddball kids, both were bullied by their peers in junior high, despite (or perhaps because of) their extraordinary talents: Patricia is a witch who was trying to find herself, while Laurence is a tech genius. While they lose track of each other for a while, their lives keep intertwining as adults in a delicate dance between natural and technological forces. Anders has created a wonderful thought-provoking tale that offers up several questions about the nature of humanity, nature, and technology, and how a balance might be struck among the three. A beautiful book.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The dust that falls from dreams, by Louis de Bernieres

There have been countless books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about World War I.  This is yet another novel with that defining conflict as its background and theme.  A well-to-do British couple have four young daughters who are growing up in a beautiful area not far from London.  On either side of their home, the neighboring families have sons, three on one side, immigrants from Baltimore, and two on the other side – originally a family of four sons, but two have died in the Boer War.  Their stories are interwoven as the Great War breaks out and changes everything.  The novel is well-written and engaging, but not distinguished enough from many other similar books – some excellent, like Kate Atkinson’s two latest titles – to leave much of an original trace in my memory just weeks after reading it.  Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey as well.  But I did enjoy the story while I was involved in it and liked the origin of its title.  “The dust that falls from dreams,” is how one character describes dancing motes in the morning sunshine.  511 pp.

My name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Stout

Like her well-known Olive Kitteredge, this is a quiet, short book with no wasted words that packs a wallop.  The narrator, Lucy, is in the hospital for weeks after developing a bad infection following a routine appendectomy.  Her mother, who she hasn’t seen in many years, makes the trip from the small northern Illinois town where Lucy grew up to visit her in the hospital in New York City.  Through short chapters and broken reminiscences the two share during this visit, we gradually learn Lucy’s background (dirt poor and from a troubled family); about where she grew up and the people who influenced her; and her adult life.  A book that rewards re-reading.  Maybe Frances McDormand will take this on too….. it would be a great mini-series.  190 pp.