Saturday, April 30, 2016

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T. J. by Tanya Eby. 258 pages.

Melinek trained as a forensic pathologist in New York City, beginning just two months before the September 11 attacks. She started out wanting to be a surgeon, but the endless hours during her medical residency led her to seek another path. Melinek tries to keep her sense of humor throughout the book, and mostly succeeds, thought there are many grim moments that cannot be laughed away.
It's a very interesting and informative book and Tanya Eby does a very good job of reading the audio edition. Many of Melinek's stories are crazy and hilarious, and some (like those dealing with maggots, and putting plastic bags over bodies of a certain age to keep the limbs from falling off) make you realize how many odd and horrible things can happen to you.


Planetes story and art by Makoto Yukimura, translated by Yuki Johnson, 524 pages.

Graphic stories translated from the Japanese, tell the story of a garbage crew in Earth-orbit. Yuri, Fee, and Hachi work as extra-planetary sanitation workers, clearing debris left from old satellites and space vehicles, so that newer craft can avoid collisions with junk moving at frightening speed (you know, like in the 2013 Sandra Bullock film, Gravity). Yuri is married as the story opens, but that soon chnges. Hachi becomes the focus as the story continues; his quest to join a mission to Jupiter becomes the central story. The story meanders a bit, and the characters mostly feel under-developed. The storyline concerning the terrorist group, the Space Defense League, is awfully thin. Overall the book is saved by Yukimura's interesting art that does, however, become Manga-esque whenever a character has strong feelings.

The Passenger

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz, 303 pages.

This is one of those thrillers that, for me, worked while I was reading it, but fell apart a bit after I had time to think about it. You know there are going to be twists and turns and surprises, partly because of the comparisons to Girl on the Train and to Gone Girl, and partly because you have to go a long way into the book to find out who the main character really is, and what she's hiding. In The Passenger, though (as in The Girl on the Train to some extent) the big reveal at the end is a bit of a let-down; with all the heavy killers stalking the main characters, you would have thought she had more to hide. And that the real villains might be a bit more villainous. The first two-thirds of the book are a good romp, and Blue is a great character.

Wind / Pinball: Two Novels

Wind / Pinball: Two Novels by Haruki Murakami, 233 pages, translated by Goossen
Two of Murakami's earliest works, long out of print, or rather the only English edition was only available in Japan.
The first, Wind, involves a young man on break from college. He hangs out at a Tokyo bar with his old friend, Rat, and meets a young girl with 9 fingers. Pinball follows the same character, I think, but explores his relationship with his twin girlfriends, whom he refers to as 208 and 209. Rat and the same bar appear in this one as well. Both stories, written in the 1970s feel like Murakami, but don't quite go down as far down the roads that he so expertly travels later. The audio is read by Kirby Heyborne.

The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman, 400 pages

The follow-up to Grossman's The Magicians picks up two years after the first book ended (um, big spoiler alert now if you haven't read The Magicians), with Quentin and three of his friends settling into their roles as the kings and queens of Fillory, a magical land that they had long thought of as fictitious. Quentin, however, is starting to get the itch for adventure again, and boards a boat out to the far reaches of Fillory to see what he can find. What follows is a world-hopping (and by "world hopping" I mean "between worlds") adventure that sends Quentin into the highest highs and lowest lows. Mixed in is the backstory of Julia, Quentin's friend from before Brakebills (the magic college he attended) who appeared at the end of the first book as a powerful hedge witch and future queen of Fillory.

This is a fun series, though it's definitely a darker, more grown up fantasy tale than Narnia and Hogwarts, which, unfairly or not, it's often compared to. The mix of foreign magical lands and pop culture references, along with the sex and drugs and darkness, make this a one-of-a-kind universe. I'm excited to read the third book.

Gahan Wilson's Out There

Gahan Wilson's Out There: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Cartoons and Writings of Gahan Wilson by Gahan Wilson, 269 pages.
Wilson, maybe better known as a cartoonist for Playboy, also had cartoons in The Magazine of  Fantasy and Science Fiction for 17 years, and wrote short stories for that publication as well. His quirky, macabre, and almost absurd cartoons appeared in every issue of the magazine from April, 1965 until 1981. I remember going to the Des Plaines Public Library and reading copies of this magazine in the reading room; you had to be very quiet there. The cartoons seemed familiar, Wilson's style is instantly recognizable, but I don't have any memory of them in context.


Presence: bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges / Amy Cuddy 344 pgs.

People find themselves in stressful situations all the time, a job interview, a presentation, meeting new people.  Cuddy has studied the effect of "presence" on success in this situations.  How can you maximize your confidence and abilities during these events?  Studies show that your physical stance affects your mental outlook.  In addition to this book, Cuddy presented this idea at a popular Ted talk.  The book is great and gives a lot of examples and individual success stories.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The girl with ghost eyes

The girl with ghost eyes / M.H. Boroson, 280 p.

Set in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1898, the "girl" of the title is Li-Lin, a young widow whose father is a great exorcist who provides protection for one of the major Tongs. Li-Lin herself has both sorcerous and martial arts training, but her father is a master. One day a man comes to her father's temple and asks her to perform a task in her father's absence, but then he betrays her to set a trap for her father. Once she figures out how to escape from the spirit world, she must protect Chinatown against the planned attack by a sorcerer with a grudge against her father.

I enjoy reading about magic from other traditions, so that appealed to me about this story. Of course, the built-in social assumptions of 1890s immigrant Chinese society greatly differ from what I'm used to, and I appreciate that the author tried to balance explaining taboos, insults, and other assumptions without lecturing, but sometimes it wasn't terribly smooth--I kept thinking about the book's narrative rather than being caught up in it. The author provides some notes at the back about how he condensed various histories and traditions so that he could tell his story.

Neither Here nor There

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson 254 pp.

Bill Bryson backpacked around Europe in the 1970s. In the 90s he decided to recreate his journey. With his characteristic honesty he describes his travels making clear his likes and dislikes. Often his descriptions are laugh-out-loud funny but I didn't find this book as engaging as Notes from a Small Island. This book seems more dated, probably from it being pre-9/11, and does not depict the changes in travel since then. But it is an enjoyable, light read.

The Relic Master

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley  380 pp.

In 16th century Europe, Dismas is a relic hunter, one who hunts for "authentic" religious relics to sell to wealthy patrons. His best customers are Frederick the Wise of Saxony and the soon to be Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. When Dismas' savings are lost by a crooked banker, Dismas and is friend, the artist Dürer create a forgery of the shroud that is sold to Albrecht. The forgery is discovered and Dismas is sent to Albrecht's dungeon to be tortured and killed but Frederick comes to his rescue. An agreement is made that Dismas will fulfill a penance for his crime by acquiring the "real" shroud from the Court of Chambery. The guards that accompany Dismas on the journey soon become involved in the misadventure involving battles, impersonations, and alchemy. This story has history, action, and humor. The "Last Supper" tableau complete with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms is a high point. Fun once you get past the descriptions of torture.

Sweet Tooth / Ian McEwan, 304 pp.

I saw Atonement along with the rest of the world and always meant to read McEwan but never got around to it.  I thought the Atonement narrative was a little purple and throbbing, but was pleasantly surprised here.  Serena Frome is a beautiful young Cambridge grad at loose ends in 1972, when she's steered towards a job at MI5 and given an assignment to surreptitiously recruit an up-and-coming novelist whose work will champion the anti-Soviet cause.  She falls in love with her target, though, and things get complicated.  One of the best surprise twists of an ending I've read in a while, this is ultimately about narrative: how does it work, who gets to tell it, and what does it mean?

Cruising through the Louvre / David Prudhomme, trans. Joe Johnson 74pp.

An artist wanders through the Louvre, looking at paintings and living people, contemplating their faces.  Meanwhile, he's gotten separated from his girlfriend and becomes increasingly frantic looking for her in the museum.  A perfectly fine premise, and could have been lovely, but the drawings simply didn't speak to me at all; there was a sort of mis-match between the text and the images.  Perhaps a translation problem?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Martian

The Martian / Andy Weir ; 369 p.

I enjoyed this a lot. I assume most people know the basic plot by now: astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to stay alive until help can arrive. I've seen the book criticized because the plot is basically external (man vs environment) rather than focusing on any character growth Mark might undergo. Which is totally fine--not every book has to be about Deep Important Thoughts. Sometimes I want to watch people be competent and solve problems, and this totally scratched that itch for me. I couldn't follow all of the science, but I thought the focus on explaining Mark's planning in detail was fine, although I have friends who find it boring and/or intimidating. Plus I enjoyed Mark's snarky personality.

I look forward to Andy Weir's next book, which he says involves a thief in a city on the Moon.


Holes / Louis Sachar 265 pgs.

Holes is the classic YA book that tells the story of Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center that has no not well described by its name.  The lake has long dried up and it is a hot, dusty hell hole for boys sent there.  Stanley Yelnats is one of the unlucky ones sent there.  Sentenced for a crime he did not commit, Stanley's family has had a run of bad luck for the last few generations due to a curse leveled on his great-grandfather.  He is not a popular kid and not surprised by his sentence.  When he gets to Camp Green Lake, he befriends Zero, a ward of the state who can't read so everyone things is stupid but Zero has a knack for numbers and goals.

I love the way this story like a factual account.  It isn't overly sentimental but effective.  Endearing and enduring.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Medusa's web

Medusa's web / Tim Powers, 358 p.

I love the way Tim Powers weaves the supernatural together with actual history in his books--I often end up wishing I could read his research notes when I finish one of his novels. Old Hollywood doesn't do much for me, though, so I just read this one for the twisty story. After their Aunt Amity's suicide, Scott and his sister Madeline return to Amity's old mansion, where they were raised along with their cousins Ariel and Claimayne. The cousins are both addicted to using spiders, symbols that allow the viewer to possess another's body in another time and possibly extend life, if the viewer can stay in the new body. Ariel is fighting to abstain from using spiders, but Claimayne's health is clearly failing (spider use exerts a price) and he's obviously plotting something. Scott has his own (more mundane) addiction to alcohol to fight, while trying to save Madeline from possession beyond the grave by Amity and dealing with his cousins' antagonism. Towards the end there are some amazing action sequences. I don't think this will bump Last Call from its spot as my favorite Tim Powers book, but I liked it a lot.

The Murder of Mary Russell

The murder of Mary Russell / Laurie King, 359 p.

When I first heard that someone was writing a series of books about Sherlock Holmes getting married after his retirement, I rolled my eyes *really* hard. I ended up enjoying the series quite a lot, though, and appreciate Mary's character--these are Mary Russell books featuring Sherlock Holmes, not the other way around. So I was disappointed by this particular series entry. We get a new view of Holmes, which was enjoyable, but far too much of the book was taken up with the history of a supporting character. It's not that I don't think the character deserves backstory, but it juuuuust draaaaagged onnnnnnn. (We spent at least a chapter on this character's parents meeting and getting married!) Once we returned to the "present" day of the narrative things pick up, but by then I was exhausted. Not one that I'll reread, I don't think.


Nimona / Noelle Stevenson, 266 p.

I'm mostly aware of Noelle Stevenson because of Lumberjanes, so I was interested in trying out this comic where she is both author and artist. I enjoyed this quite a lot; the art style isn't my usual speed, but I found it very evocative.

Of Mice and Magic

Hamster Princess 2. Of mice and magic / Ursula Vernon, 277 p.

As Karen said a few reviews back, these books are tremendous fun. My favorite part about this one is that Harriet, who defeated her curse in the first book, is very concerned that the twelve dancing princesses want their curse to be lifted. Harriet really liked her curse! Not everyone wants their "curses" to be removed, you know! It's great. I love Ursula Vernon's ways of looking at situations sideways from the norm.

My Father the Pornographer

My father the pornographer: a memoir / Chris Offutt, 261 p.

I'd heard good things about this book, and I was intrigued because its subject, Andrew J. Offutt, was an author whose fantasy novels I read when I was in high school. I wasn't aware of his second life as a writer of pornography...although, having read this memoir by his son, it's pretty clear that pornography was his primary life, really, and everything else was secondary. It's a fascinating look at a dysfunctional man who arranged his life just so, and forced his family to adapt to his unreasonable requirements. The section discussing pornography-by-mail and how bondage enthusiasts connected with each other before the advent of the internet was interesting too, in a different way.

Andrew J. Offutt was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America for a while in the 1970s, and I particularly enjoyed the description of that organization as "a nearly ungovernable organization of misfits, rebels, and contrarians known for petty grievances and brutally absurd political maneuvering."

Jesus: the Human Face of God / Jay Parini, 153 pp.

This title is part of the Icons Series, which includes Edgar Allan Poe, VanGogh, Alfred Hitchcock, and St. Paul. I am amused by this selection of topics, and like to think that the subject of this particular title would be as well.

Parini is a novelist, poet, and critic, and he brings a literary sensibility to his reading of the Gospels.  Most of the interpretations he presents of key passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount, were already familiar to me.  What was unique was the way in which Parini interwove the four Gospels to present an (almost) coherent story.  The final chapter is a very nice overview of the history of Jesus scholarship.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Bed Moved: Stories / Rebecca Schiff, 139 pp.

Sex and Death are great topics for short stories; maybe they are they only topics for short stories. But it sure says something (I don't know exactly what) when a collection's death stories are way less bleak than the sex ones.

Schiff's stories all feature as protagonist a single, straight, Jewish, Gen-Y/millennial who lost her father as a young adult. And they are keen, compulsively readable, observant, and sharply witty. Still, they make me glad I am closer to death than I am to any of the dismal sexual encounters she describes. Men and women her age hook up, have sex, and don't remember any of it the next day, not because they blacked out, but because they were bored, it seems. And as for love, that is entirely missing in action. Kids these days...

Dwight Garner gave this collection a glowing review in the NYT, and I get it. Lines such as, "We drove back to his grow house with egg dripping off the side of the car, then fucked in an Aeron chair he'd bought when he had money..." (from It Doesn't Have to Be a Big Deal) are good, and not just because they're funny and snarky and rude. Schiff has a real economy with language, and she can load more meaning in a paragraph than some writers put in entire novels. Take as another example this line from Little Girl: "She slept with men who only wanted to play Settlers of Catan." Or 100 more like it. I might wish I had written those things, but I'm glad I haven't actually lived them.

Of Mice and Magic

Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon  277 pp.

This is the second volume in Vernon's new Hamster Princess series. Harriet, the very un-princessy princess is bored since she is no longer invincible (see the first book). She rides off on her faithful battle quail, Mumfrey, in search of a quest. Her mission this time is to break the curse on the twelve dancing (mouse) princesses. Vernon's take-off on the classic fairy tale involves a king who has named his daughters after the months of the year. The witch Molezelda, whose twelve sons are named for the signs of the zodiac has cast a spell to marry her sons to the princesses by forcing them to dance all night, every night. Harriet, with the help of a magical "poncho of invisibility" (easier and cheaper to make than a cloak of invisibility) foils her plot with the help of Prince Wilbur who appeared in the first book. This is a fun series with lots of goofy humor.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Guise of Another

The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens, 267 pages.
Minneapolis Detective Alexander Rupert is under investigation for corruption. He had been in Narcotics, but his partner was arrested for various misdeeds and Alex may be implicated as well. His semi-trophy wife may be leaving him, and he may or may not be on the verge of losing everything he has, including the respect of his older brother Max who is also a cop (and who was a pivotal character in Eskens excellent The Life We Bury).
When Alex gets the chance to investigate an apparent identity theft by a man, now deceased, who had faked his own death 15 years before, he believes he may have found a path to resurrecting his career. The characters, plot twists, and decisions that stand in his way are all well-crafted, and make this an interesting read.
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An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, 446 pages.
Sabaa Tahir's first book, in what I assume will be a big series, works pretty well. Laia is a Scholar. Her people were conquered 500 years ago by the Martial Empire. Elias Veturias, a Martial soldier-in-training, is completing his last year at Blackcliff.
Blackcliff academy takes in 6 year-olds and trains them to be Masks, the Martial Empire's elite soldiers. They train for a couple of years, during which there is a relatively high death rate, and then they are sent out on their own with nothing for a few years, during which time there is a much higher death rate, and then they get to be the cool upperclassmen of this killing academy.
Laia's path crosses that of Elias as they are both having to choose how they will lead what is left of their lives. Neither can stand to live with the crushing oppression of the Martial Empire any longer. Laia feels she must join the rebellion and Elias feels that he must desert. There are prophecies and unexpected plot twists standing in their respective paths. Well done if not startlingly original. Read by Fiona Hardingham & Steve West. 15.5hours
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The Crossing

The Crossing by Micahel Connelly, 388 pages.
Harry Bosch, who had been working as an LAPD Detective since the time of the Vietnam war, has retired. His half-brother, defense attorney Mickey Haller, wants to hire him as an investigator to help defend a man accused of murder. This pretty much goes against everything that Bosch has ever stood for, and he is a little reluctant to help out someone he is convinced is a murdering scumbag. He does agree to look at the casefile, and as his brother knew he would, Bosch finds several discrepancies when he compares the file to the locations, witness statements, and physical evidence. As Bosch anticipated, just working for a defense attorney draws the wrath of many of his former LAPD coworkers, but since Bosch has always chosen to speak for the murder victim, those who can no longer speak for themselves, this bothers him less than he thought it might. A solid part of a great series.

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A Thousand Naked Strangers: a Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge andBack / Kevin Hazzard, 261 pp.

I doubt I have anything to add to the several favorable reviews that have already been written on this blog, except to say that I once knew someone who worked at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where Hazzard spent most of his time, and their stories of outlandish chaos definitely jibe.

I was struck by something Hazzard said about the anticipation (and anxiety) he would feel as he approached a call: what would he find there? How out-of-hand would the situation be? His descriptions of negotiating his way through extremely difficult situations with patients and their families, many of them drunk, doped, angry, and in pain, were just a teeny bit familiar.

Mothering Sunday: a Romance / Graham Swift, 177pp.

A brief and strangely powerful story shows us one important afternoon in the life of Jane Fairchild, 22-years-old in 1924 and housemaid to a wealthy family. More importantly, she is the secret lover of Paul, the scion of an even wealthier neighboring family. Their tryst on this unseasonably warm March Sunday, a holiday which was the forerunner of the modern Mother's Day, sets the course for Jane's future in unexpected ways. Deeply sensual but not gratuitous, and unlike anything I've read in recent years. Recommended.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Dirt on Ninth Grave

The Dirt on Ninth Grave by Darynda Jones  352 pp.

I picked up the audio version of this not realizing it was the ninth book in a series. The main character, Charley Davidson, sees dead people, animals, and other spiritual entities and can interact with them. She is living in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. (yes, that one) as Jane Doe because she is suffering from an acute case of amnesia. She has no clue about her former life or even what her real name is. All she knows is that she is seeing ghosts everywhere and that a customer at the diner where she is working has all the women, her included, in an extreme state of lust. She doesn't understand or quite know how to handle her unusual abilities and it leads her into situations that soon become dangerous on all plains of existence. When a town shop owner is endangered, "Janey" feels compelled to save him and his family, putting her life in danger. I liked this book with the exception of the frequent use of popular slang which will date it quickly.

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason, 256 pp.

No, this is not a companion piece to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It is the tale of a hitman from Croatia with the nickname "Toxic". He is a professional with 66 successful hits to his, When he accidentally kills the wrong man he is forced to flee the U.S. and murders a clergyman in an airport restroom to assume his identity and tickets to Iceland, not realizing the clergyman is a t.v. evangelist due to appear on Icelandic television. In Iceland he stays with a married couple who run a religious television network but when his identity is discovered ends up being tracked by the police and the mobsters who want him dead for the bad hit. During all this he realizes it's time to "retire" from the hired killer business and tries to begin a new life with the daughter of the the evangelist couple. Convoluted but entertaining. The Icelandic author chose to write this novel in English rather than his native tongue and have it translated. The latter method might have improved the flow and the dialogue.

Spur of the Moment

Spur of the Moment by David Linzee, 323 pages

Mezzo-soprano Renata Radleigh is preparing for a minor role in the St. Louis Opera's avant garde production of Carmen when a bigwig donor is found dead. For the police and the court of public opinion, Renata's brother, Don, the SLO's main donor schmoozer, is the prime suspect, and while there's no love lost between the Radleigh siblings, Renata is convinced that her brother's innocent and starts digging around the donor's life to clear his name. Her investigation takes her into the competitive world of medical research and development at Adams University, where she suspects she'll find the truth.

I'll be completely honest: the main reason I checked out this book was to support Linzee, a UCPL patron, and someone I've worked with on various projects over the years. I'd never read any of his novels and I wasn't sure what to expect. What I discovered was a well-written, engaging murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns that I didn't see coming. Renata is a fantastic heroine, and I genuinely hope that Linzee writes more books about her escapades as both an amateur detective and an opera performer. (I also hope to read about many more of the wacky opera productions; Linzee's kooky Carmen was hilarious.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Improbable Libraries

Improbable Libraries: A visual journey to the world's most unusual libraries / Alex Johnson 240 pgs.

Tiny libraries, big libraries, mobile libraries, animal see the thing in common here, right?  This book covers a LOT of slightly unusual libraries.  I say "slightly" because all of them have some things in common.  Books, frequently they offer services, and all are fun to read about and view.  What is cooler than the camel library that serves kids in Mongolia?  Maybe the floating library (a boat) that serves kids in Laos.  Clearly a book for all library nerds to explore.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson, 329 pages

Jenny Lawson, better known in the blogosphere as The Bloggess, has made a name for herself writing rambling, often laugh-so-hard-you-cry essays about everything from taxidermy to her cats (who are not dead yet, but are often talked about with the same degree of love and amusement as her many taxidermied creatures) to her eye-rolling husband's reactions to her shenanigans to lifelong struggle with various mental illnesses.

Furiously Happy is that and more. In this book, she muses on everything from cat rodeos (which she plans out late at night when she can't sleep, and involve the aforementioned cats and taxidermied creatures) to her failed attempt at meeting with a financial planner to her trip to Australia. All of these things are hilarious. But in this book she also offers up some serious insights into her depression and anxiety, which hit so hard that they almost make you cry.

Basically this book makes you cry.

But that's a good thing. It's real and personal and, yes, rambly, but it's awesome. I highly recommend the audiobook, which Lawson reads herself, which really brings the scatterbrained feel of the book to life (but again, in a good way). Listen to it. It's great.

Major Pettigrew's last stand

Major Pettigrew's last stand / Helen Simonson 358 pgs.

Major is a bit of an old school guy, he is very "proper" and quite lonely since his wife dies.  He strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Ali, a shop owner in town who has also lost her partner.  In many ways, this is the entirety of the story...they interact with each other and others and the results are often enjoyable.  The major is clearly falling for Mrs. Ali but he is stifles his feelings so well, we are not sure she will notice.  I won't spoil it for you but this multicultural, multi generational story is a delight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939" by Adam Hochschild

You can hear the undulating pulse of a world headed to global conflict throughout the pages of “Spain In Our Hearts.”

In it Adam Hochschild puts forth a convincing argument that the Spanish Civil War was in essence the prelude for World War II. At the heart of his argument is the rudimentary belief that that this conflict, which
pitted Franco’s fascist state (with more than a little help from Hitler and Mussolini), against Spain’s government.

For most our understanding of the civil war’s three years stems from the writings of George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and the writings of those who pilots, nurses, doctors and soldiers felt a personal call to fight for Spain.

Until now most of what we’ve understood about the conflict culturally and historically has been shoddy, wrong or simply outdated. Fortunately the stories of those not so famous Americans who left their homes to bring freedom to a faraway land have been saved for posterity thanks to Hochschild’s concise narrative, which has been pieced together from letters, documents and newly available archives.

As Hochschild shrewdly observes, The Spanish Civil War was something new for it’s time, a media event for a thirsty American press looking for sensational stories of bravery and adventure and an opportunity for the Imperial powers of Europe to test their advanced war machines on a broad scale.

Initially most Americans thought the Spanish Civil War was an insignificant cause embraced by leftists and Commies. However as things dragged on and the violence escalated the tenor of alarm, horror and resentment settled into the American public, causing even more Americans to become involved.

It also was an interesting affair in that it was the first modern war covered by writers, journalists and artists who were intimately involved in their subject matter. The battles, skirmishes and massacres left in its wake also left a lasting affect on Picasso, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett and other intellectuals of the day. 

Eighty years on, the Spanish Civil War remains a convoluted era in time, a moment that is conflicting, confusing and controversial. While its legacy of brutality and bloodlust haunt Spain to this day. For most Americans however, the hostilities remain a lost era whose heroes have toiled in relative obscurity. As a result we’ve never really known of the valor exhibited at home and abroad by ordinary citizens, until now.

The Everything Box

The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey, 352 pages (advanced reading copy)

Coop is a career criminal who specializes in stealing magical items that are protected by everything from your standard combination safe and swinging axe booby traps to curse tripwires and demons that masquerade as small children. Fresh out of prison, Coop is hired to steal an innocuous-looking box, which is then stolen again, and again, and Coop is hired to steal it back, again, and again. His job is made infinitely harder by competing demonic cults, a host of mysterious bad guys, and the obnoxious meddling of the government Department of Peculiar Science (DOPS, which is pronounced "dopes,"), who are all attempting to steal the box, which may be the key to starting the apocalypse, or it could just be really lucky. Who knows.

I had a blast reading this book. It's like Christopher Moore and Jim Butcher decided to get together and write a heist novel. It's silly, full of crazy creatures and characters, and it's a heist! And I'm a sucker for a heist. This is theoretically the first in a series; if so, I can't wait for the next one!

The Taxidermist's Daughter / Kate Mosse, 412 pp.

I enjoyed Mosse's Winter Ghosts and was also pleased by this, her latest.  She favors remote settings and stormy weather in her stories; in this case, the novel is set in a small town in Sussex, by the sea, amid downpours and flooding.  Connie Gifford is the daughter of the town 'animal stuffer' as he refers to himself.  She and her father live in a remote old house by the water and are largely shunned by the locals because of murky events in Gifford's past.  When Connie witnesses a bizarre ritual in the gloomy churchyard one evening and a young woman is found drowned in the marsh near their home, Connie tries to piece together her lost memories from a childhood accident.  Standard spooky- story stuff and a nice claustrophobic atmosphere make this a quick, fun read.  Especially recommended for those who like a village story that's definitely not cozy.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Look Evelyn, Duck Dynasty wiper blades. We should get them.

Look Evelyn, Duck Dynasty wiper blades. We should get them. / David Thorne 203 pages

Fewer work related essays and almost no drawings, this collection of David Thorne's essays seem a little more personal and tell of his childhood, his house and neighbors.  There is also the revealing story of helping Simon (his work place Dwight) cope with a cheating girlfriend.  Does David Thorne have a soft spot in his heart for Simon after all?

In one of the essays set at work, David and co-worker Kevin are tasked with first interviews for a new designer.  The questions they come up with are fabulous and, of course, entirely inappropriate. A must read for hiring managers.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret / Liane Moriarty 445 pgs.

An intersecting story that revolves around three women.  Cecilia, the expert mother, wife and person you want on every committee. Tess, outwardly confident and successful but actually suffering from social anxiety. And Rachel, a loving grandmother and school secretary whose daughter was murdered as a teenager.  Each one of these women, as well as their husbands have secrets.  The biggest ones affect many lives and are responsible for misery.  How can you ever know what someone else is dealing with?  Love, lust, revenge, and bitchiness...this book has it all.  Recommended.

Friday, April 15, 2016


Persuasion / Jan Austen 271 pgs.

In the shortest summary ever, this is the story of Anne Elliot who had a love, lost him, then found him again.  Yea, yea, yea, lots of other stuff goes on but this is the very basic premise.  Anne was young and inexperienced when first engaged to Frederick Wentworth, but he was poor and the match didn't work out after family pressure.  Now years later, they reconnect in the way that all of these stories work, it takes awhile before they can express their feelings.

This was Austen's last complete novel and was published after her death.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, 173 pages

Nancy is a new resident at a boarding school, where all of the students once crossed over into an alternate world and have returned to parents who aren't so pleased with the kid who came back. (Kinda like Narnia or Wonderland, but not quite; McGuire offers an amusing and eviscerating description of Narnia that makes the reader quite clear that none of those in the boarding school have ever gone to Narnia.) Nancy, who visited the Halls of the Dead, is still learning her way around when students begin dying in horrendous ways, and finds herself one of the prime suspects in their murders.

It's a short book, and it gives me much pleasure to describe it as Gaimanesque, in that it's spooky, unsettling, magical, and strangely real. This is the first book I've read by the Hugo-nominated McGuire, and I'll definitely be reading more by her. This was fantastic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Collected Poems in English / Joseph Brodsky, many translators, including Brodsky, 539 pp.

When I started this long book I found Brodsky's poetry challenging but assumed that after a couple of hundred pages I would get better at reading it. Practice makes perfect, but alas, not here.  These works remained challenging until the last page; reading them was like the sensation of squinting at a sign that's too far away to read.  Occasional glimmers of meaning come through but the whole is out of reach.

I didn't waste my time, though.  For one thing, the sheer variety of topics Brodsky treats is astonishing.  There's love:

...sleep's entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
                                       to join my own, without another thought.

And the Presentation at the Temple:

The Temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary - 

And Mexico:

Good old Mexico City.
Marvelous place to kill an 
evening.  The heart is empty;
but Time still flows like tequila.

And from the almanac-style History of the Twentieth Century (a Roadshow) for 1908:

Also, the first Model T is out
in Dearborn to roam our blissful quarters
trailed by the news that General Motors
is incorporated.  The English Edward
And Russia's Nicholas make an effort 
to know each other aboard a yacht.

Seemingly Brodsky's poetry contains the whole universe; I am glad to have grasped a few of the glimmers.

Bucky F*cking Dent

Bucky F*cking Dent by David Duchovny, 296 pages

Thirty-something self-described loser and Yankee Stadium peanut vendor Ted has always had a fraught relationship with his father, Marty, a retired womanizing advertising executive and a lifelong Red Sox fan. (Is that the reason Ted works for and supports the Yankees, despite having the middle name of Fenway? Probably doesn't hurt.) Father and son haven't talked for five years when Ted is summoned to the hospital, where he learns that Marty is in the final stages of lung cancer. Ted moves home and is determined to figure out where their relationship went wrong. The whole book is set against the 1978 American League fight for the playoffs between the Red Sox and Yankees (a LOT of Sox fans felt that that was their year, and in the book, Marty is convinced that he's immortal until October, "when the Sox win it all.").

Duchovny offers up a good exploration of both the father-son dynamic, as well as the role that baseball plays in the American psyche. A great book to read as the MLB season kicks off.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fresh off the boat

Fresh off the boat: a memoir / Eddie Huang 276 pgs.

Eddie Huang has a great immigrant story.  Well, actually he is a first generation American but with plenty of family ties to Taiwan.  His dad was a bit of a gangster there but came to America and ended up a successful restaurant owner.  Eddie and his two brothers were no coddled and learned to kick the ass of anyone who made Chinese jokes about them or taunted them for being different.  Eddie is a bit of a gangster himself.  He does well in school if he can just stay long enough instead of getting kicked out for fighting, etc.  He is a troublemaker but much in the "boys will be boys" way.  He is willing to hustle.  He is now the owner of a very popular New York restaurant.

This is kind of a hip hop memoir but great fun to read and perhaps not always serious.  The cover reveals a lot about Eddie and I enjoyed every page of this book.

My Beloved World

My Beloved World / Sonia Sotomayor 340 pgs.

This memoir from Justice Sotomayor tells an amazing story of a young  Puerto Rican girl who grew up in the Bronx in a loving but very poor family.  Her father died when she was young leaving her mother to raise her and her brother.  Sotomayor was diagnosed at a very young age with type 1 diabetes...a disease that she always assumed would lead to an early death.  Regardless, her determination and grit helped her excel in school and get accepted to Princeton and Yale.

I have to say, I checked this out on a whim and was very moved by her story, her candor and her amazing accomplishments.  She seems very humble and also very fun, I assume she and RBG are having a good time at the Supreme Court.

The outsiders

The Outsiders / S. E. Hinton 221 pgs.

This classic young adult book features Ponyboy, the youngest of three brothers whose parents died in a wreck.  Their world is split into Greasers and Socs and the two don't mix well.  When friend Johnny is beaten by a gang, he is scared and wants to make sure it never happens again.  He and Ponyboy are caught alone by a larger group and in the end, a teen is killed.  The path following the death is harrowing.  Nobody wanted something so serious to happen but it can't be changed now.  The timeless themes of fitting in/not fitting in and figuring out who you are make this a great book even after all these years.

Seeing Red

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell, 157 pages

In this autobiographical novel, Meruane details how complications from a chronic illness left her essentially blind, able to see only the dark red blood from burst veins in her eyes. Told in a deliberately disorienting style, Meruane details the initial panic of not seeing, the awkward visits to doctors, the trip home to Chile to visit her family, the incessant fumbling through life to figure out how to be blind. It's illuminating, and made this reader infinitely grateful that my eyes work just fine.

The Door

The Door by Magda Szabo, 262 pages.
This Hungarian tale from the 1980s tells the story of a cleaning woman and her employer.
Emerence is a woman out of myth. She serves as a cleaning woman for and Magda (the character, not the author) and her husband. She refers to Magda's husband simply as "the master." Emerence is a force to be reckoned with; she is unwavering, unforgiving, and unstoppable. She cannot understand why anyone would waste time reading, let alone writing books, as Magda does. But Emerence comes to love Magda, as she loves Viola, the stray dog she foists upon Magda's household, and as she loves her privacy, her endless collection of cats, and her secrets. Emerence stands for everything that has passed and faded; for an old Hungary out of fable, and for the endless stoicism needed to survive both the war and the Soviets. She cannot be explained or reasoned with. But she can be disappointed and betrayed by those whom she loves. This is a wonderful book.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, 207 pages

In September of 1992, hikers found the emaciated body of Christopher McCandless in an abandoned bus just outside Denali National Park. He had died of starvation a few weeks earlier, more than three months after walking into the wilderness with the intention of living off the land. In Into the Wild, Krakauer examines the two years leading up to McCandless' death, in which the privileged college grad left everything behind and hitchhiked across the country. It's a revealing portrait of a kid that many may dismiss as foolhardy or even arrogant, particularly considering the information that made it into the media after his body was discovered. It's well worth a read though, because I'd bet that almost everyone will in some way see a bit of themselves in McCandless, or in those whose lives he touched.

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell, 324 pages.
Voyager I and Voyager II were both launched in 1977 to take advantage of a rare planetary alignment. Once every 176 years, the outer planets of our solar system line up in such a way that a probe launched from Earth could, in one go, fly a path Voyager I launched on September 5, 1977 and flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Each flight path had to be meticulously plotted, taking into account the trajectory past each planet, slingshotting towards the craft's next destination, while obtaining the most data possible as each planet and moon was flown past, all while keeping in communication with Earth. Voyager I flew by Jupiter and its moons, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto, before continuing on to Saturn and its moons, including a close pass by Titan. Voyager II had a similar flight path, but if Voyager I had a successful pass by Titan (as it did), Voyager II would use energy from passing closer to Saturn and continue on towards Uranus and Neptune. Bell tells of his personal interactions with Voyager, from watching the news in 1977, to small astronomy-related jobs in college in 1980, to professional and friendly conversations with Voyager team members in his roles as a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell, and as President of the Planetary Society. The Voyager missions discovered many things, moons reformed to a smooth surface by unknown forces, rings around Uranus and eruptions and ultracold cryovolcanic flows on distant icy moons. A fascinating book.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry

The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry by John Feinstein, 404 pages.

So this is a book for you if have an interest in Duke basketball, North Carolina (University) basketball, North Carolina State basketball, any of the coaches in the title, any of their legions of famous players over the years, or if you just like reading the works of John Feinstein. And he is a pretty good writer; almost every vignette he relates comes across as very interesting, even if at its core it's not. I found over the course of this book that I don't care all that much about North Carolina (the entire state) and its basketball teams, and would have preferred to read these gems as the individual magazine pieces that they seem they should be; other than the fact that these teams play each other several times each and every year of the thirty-some years this book covers, and that each of these coaches (like their predecessors and those that follow them) would prefer to defeat the other, there's not really a sustaining narrative.And everything and everyone in the book, for those thirty years, with the exception of Valvano when he is on his deathbed, is consumed by college basketball.

The noble hustle

The noble hustle: poker, beef jerky and death by Colson Whitehead 234 pgs.

I picked up this book after reading "American Housewife" and learning that author Helen Ellis coached Colson Whitehead on his epic poker journey to the World Series of Poker.  I had read only one other book by Whitehead and just didn't get it.  But here, his account of preparing for this big gambling journey is a very enjoyable read.  He suffers from some "issues" to say the least.  He feels like a failure, he is, perhaps depressed about his divorce.  He needs to learn how to play poker pretty well in hopes that he won't embarrass himself at the WSOP, the buy in which is being provided by a magazine for whom he will write a story.  In preparation, he takes the bus to Atlantic City regularly and practices his game.  He also hires a personal trainer, hooks up with a poker coach and immerses himself in poker culture.  In the end, I don't think this is a spoiler, he does NOT win it all. But he does do well enough that he feels like he didn't embarrass himself.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Lunch at the Piccadilly

Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton 266 pgs.

Carl's favorite aunt was always Lil, and they have a great relationship.  Lil never had kids of her own and Carl has been taking care of her and checking up on her for years.  Lil is now living in a nursing home although thinks she will be going home soon so has continued to pay rent on her apartment.  As the story goes, we find Lil to be quite a spitfire and Carl is a devoted and loving nephew.  There is little chance Lil is going to live alone again but Carl is patient with her and lets her be in charge.  The relationships of the residents of the nursing home and Carl befriending them, is heart warming.  This book isn't great but it is a nice way to pass an afternoon.