Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The beautiful bureaucrat

The beautiful bureaucrat / Helen Phillips 180 pgs.

Not sure why I picked up this book...I must have read something about it or someone mentioned it to me.  I started reading it just last night and could not stop.  Maybe it is my past history as a bureaucrat...Josephine and her husband are having a hard time...they have moved from the hinterland to the big city and are trying to make it.  One of the early scenes is the eviction from their apartment.  But things are looking up!  They are both employed again but Josephine is not thrilled with her job.  She is a bureaucrat...typing numbers into a database without context and screen protection.  Soon her eyes are very red much like her only friend on the job, Trishiffany (her mother couldn't decide between Trish and Tiffany).  Her boss is faceless and has horrible breath and now her husband doesn't come home a few times but with no acceptable explanation (had to work late).  Josephine and hubby are bouncing between short term sublets, each perhaps *slightly* better than the last as they try to save up some money and start a family.  I can't say a whole lot more without including some spoilers.  As much as this doesn't sound like something that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but somehow it is.  Bureaucracy at its best!

If You Didn't Bring Jerky, What Did I Just Eat?

If You Didn't Bring Jerky, What Did I Just Eat?: Misadventures in Hunting, Fishing, and the Wilds of Suburbia by Paul Heavey  304 pp.

Fans of Patrick F. McManus' hilarious anecdotes about hunting, fishing, and camping will enjoy this collection by Paul Heavey taken from years of articles in Field & Stream Magazine. While there are plenty of funny episodes, I didn't find Heavey's writing as laugh-out-loud funny as the McManus books. Still, it was fun, especially if you enjoy the outdoors and aren't the most adept at hunting, fishing, & the great outdoors.

Numero Zero

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco  191 pp.

This short (for Eco) story involves conspiracies, a newspaper only interested in reporting the awful, a loser news reporter who becomes editor, and his love interest, another reporter whose main work has been celebrity gossip. Beginning in 1992, the story involves conspiracy theories about the murder of Pope John Paul I, a Mussolini cadaver body double, terrorists, and other convoluted events. This was the last novel published before Eco's death and it feels a little unfinished or perhaps just unpolished. There is some of the random, quirky, humor common in his other works but the story just seems to be missing something.

Poems: New and Selected / Ron Rash, 171 pp.

A thoroughly enjoyable collection of poems that are accessible but not at all simple. All deal in some way with rural North Carolina Blue Ridge life and are grouped thematically. My favorite was the section on 'lint-heads,' textile workers at the SpringMaid factory.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Duende: Poems

Duende: Poems by Tracy K. Smith,  87 pages.

Smith's second book of poems, for which she won the 2006 James Laughlin Award. This award is given to commend and support a poets second book of poetry. Given that Smith's first book of poems. The Body's Question won the Whiting Writers Award and that her 2011 collection, Life on Mars, won the Pulitzer, and given that these are excellent poems, the judges for the Laughlin Award, their rather narrow focus aside, made an excellent choice.
Smith's poems are softly focused on loss and betrayal and let slip their subjects hurt and sometimes a  smoldering rage:

Now That the World Has Turned:
Nothing disappears. Only hovers and thins.
Whoever we were months ago is colder.
Someone writes to say I bear down upon him
Like a wet coat. Just these lines.

The many loves of Dobie Gillis

The many loves of Dobie Gillis: eleven campus stories / Max Shulman 223 pgs.

Recommended by Elinor Lipman, I must agree with her that this is very funny stuff.  Not that Elinor and I have been talking, she recommended this in her book.  Dobie is a student at the University of Minnesota and often more concerned with his relationships than his studies.  Each of these stories features Dobie although his major changes, his focus on attractive women is constant.  Trouble has a way of finding Dobie but he is also pretty good at squirming out of trouble.  All of these stories are entertaining.  Max Shulman has a way of structuring the stories that, even if you can see the ending, getting there is a wonderful trip.

The wild geese

The wild geese / Ogai Mori 119 pgs.

A story of unrequited love between a university student and a mistress of a wealthy usurer.  Otoma is a beautiful girl, devoted to her father who can not provide for them.  She becomes the mistress of a wealthy man in exchange for a better living arrangement for her father.  Otoma, being born poor, is used to working but is now forces to wait around for her master to visit.  She notices Okada as he walks by every day and becomes smitten with him even though they have never exchanged words.  One day when her master is going to be out of town, she vows to speak to Okada and hopes to build a relationship with him.  Unknown to her, he has just accepted a post in Europe and is leaving the next day.  A series of events change his usual routine and they end up not speaking.  Is it fate or just bad luck? The story is told later by a friend of Okada who meets Otoma and puts together the narrative.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille)

The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille) by Máirtin Ó Cadhain, 308 pages.
Translated from the Irish by Alan Titley.

Ó Cadhain's 1949 book is considered one of the best books written in the Irish language, and took 65 years to have a complete translation into English. The novel takes place in the graveyard outside of small Irish town. All of the characters are dead, and they spend their time telling each other old lies, revealing each others' old secrets, and re-visiting old, tightly held grievances. Caitriona Paudeen has died, as the novel opens, and she finds her potential rest disturbed by her closeness to the corpse of her son's mother-in-law, a woman she refers to as Toejam Nora.Nora and Caitriona spend the novel trading obscenity laced jabs, trying to convince their departed neighbors of the rightness of their cause, and to win them to their respective sides. The story is told almost totally in dialogue, with many voices clamoring all at once, and often no way of knowing who is talking. Not a book that takes an optimistic view of human interactions or of the afterlife.

An interesting, but slow-moving book. Not for those who like clean language as the recently deceased Irish are apparently fond of cursing colorfully and imaginatively.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories by Helen Oyeyemi,  325 pages.

Oyeyemi writes some great stories here. "Prescence," with its exploration of manufactured, processed grief, is a sad, discomfiting tale, and one of the strongest in the book. "Is Your Blood as Red as This" a story of love, pupeteers, and enchanted puppets, was really good, but strangely labyrinthine, and I could not get through it easily. Oyeyemi's writing is smooth and she has a wonderful off-kilter look at everything. Shes seems to be telling her stories effortlessly, and reminded me a bit of Valerie Luiselli. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Sharp Ends: Stories from the World of the First Law

Sharp Ends: Stories from the World of the First Law by Joe Abercrombie, 286 pages.

Seemingly, not so much stories, as odd bits and leftovers from the three First Law novels and Best Served Cold. Characters such as Nicomo Cosca, and Monzarro Murcatto from the South lands and Bethold, Whirrun, and the Bloody Nine from the North make appearances. There are new characters too, the thief Shevediah, and her interesting friends Carcolf, and Javre. The dialog and the pacing are all great, classic Abercrombie, but overall, Sharp Ends isn't going anywhere in particular. Fun reading that will definitely be of interest to Abercrombie's many fans and to fans of writers such as George R. R. Martin.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Jeeves in the offing

Jeeves in the offing / P. G. Wodehouse 256 pgs.
read by Frederick Davidson

Jeeves tries to take a vacation but Bertie gets himself in a mess and has to call him back.  Bertie is visiting Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court and finds himself engaged via an announcement in the paper.  His intended is using his name to make way for her true love, a man who will look to the parents when compared to Bertie.  It is a brilliant plan until the lovers break up and Bertie has to find a way out of this mess.  Also in attendance is the American playboy Willie Cream who is suspected of pinching a favorite piece of Uncle Upjohn's extensive silver collection.  As always, the audio is a delight and I just LOVE the voice that Davidson has for Aunt Dahlia.

The Loney / Andrew Michael Hurley, 295 pp.

A man leading a strange and isolated London life reminisces about one Easter season from his adolescence.  He and his family, which includes younger brother Hanny, who has an unspecified deficit of some sort - perhaps autism or mutism - make an annual pilgrimage with others from their intense Catholic parish.  They travel to the Loney, a frankly dreadful-sounding place on the coast in Lancashire, where a holy well can be found.

Something truly horrible happens here, involving a mysterious local family as well as several menacing pub regulars.  Rituals are performed, both dark and light, although Hurley forces us to puzzle over whether the latter is much better than the former.  And our narrator's memory is called into question to strong effect.

I can't say I fully understood this story, but I turned every page never sure what was going to happen next, which I consider a reader's gift.  I hope someone else reads it to enlighten me.

Crisps, Custards, Custards, and Creams / Jean Anderson, 301 pp.

I confess that I kept this book at my house for too long in part because I liked looking at the cover photo.

This is a very comprehensive collection of the title desserts with an English slant, including things such as syllabub and Eton mess.  I may have overindulged recently in Icebox Cakes, which has some overlap with these recipes, so that I was less inspired to cook from this volume.  And Anderson's recipe style is a tad rigid for my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-saucepan technique, with very explicit, slightly over-explained instructions.

However, I had a rather triumphant success here: Rote Grutze, or red berry pudding, which the author translates as 'red glop.'  Deceptively simple, with raspberries, cranberries, cherries and strawberries, and a very easy mock Devonshire cream, but it made a group of people hum with happiness.

Dinner Pies: from Shepherd's Pies and Pot Pies to Turnovers, Quiches, Hand Pies, and More / Ken Haedrich, 271 pp.

There are books that make you cry because a cute puppy dies, or a war is lost, or the star-crossed lovers are finally united.  And then there are the really, really good books that make you cry because after you read them you can finally make a pie crust. Consistently.  And it doesn't look like it has hail damage, even.

I can't put my finger on the secret here, but whatever it is, I will never try anyone else's crust recipe.

As for fillings, I certainly didn't try them all, but several were quite nice: broccoli, mushroom and ham quiche hit the spot, and the Italian sausage and spinach polenta pie was a stunner.  The next time I check this out, I plan to try the baked reuben sandwich, which is basically a reuben inside turnover pastry.  Not a bad idea, huh?

100 Recipes: the Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials / America's Test Kitchen, 353 pp.

Since bringing home  Cook It in Cast Iron I have become a fan of America's Test Kitchen.  This volume contains very detailed explanations for mostly simple mainstays, although there is a decent sampling of international dishes as well.  I had great success with Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Peach Sauce.  Yes, it would be hard to make slow-roasted pig and peaches taste bad in any case, but the sauce contained some surprising seasonings that added great contrast.  And mashed sweet potatoes were presented in a way I'd never seen which worked perfectly.  An Indian-spiced rice pilaf with dates was also good, and very easy.  This would make a nice housewarming / college grad / wedding shower gift.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Where's my wand?

Where's my wand?: One boys magical triumph over alienation and shag carpeting / Eric Poole 263 pgs.

I found this book on Overdrive and thought it looked interesting. I was amazed to start reading and discovered that Eric Poole lived in North County and is a graduate of Hazelwood Central High.  This is a memoir of his younger years...a time when he considered magic a possible solution to his problems of alienation and mother with some severe OCD about cleaning house.  He and his sister stuck together as kids and managed to survive 36 hours of a planned week-long camping trip with Aunt Jinny.  Communing with nature was NOT in their nature.  The stories of school bullies and abuse seem very familiar and the family dynamic is priceless.

This is a funny account of growing up and not exactly fitting in.  

Fates and Furies

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff  390 pp.

This novel was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and winner of multiple other awards. I can understand why. It is beautifully written. It is the story of a marriage between Lancelot, aka Lotto, and Mathilde. Both suffered unpleasant and/or horrific childhoods. They enter into a marriage that is a true partnership with Mathilde doing what she can to support Lotto in his career in the theater, first as a failed actor then as a successful playwright. It is only after Lotto's untimely death that the secrets and the furies emerge. There is horrible and understandable anger in the last half of the story. many characters emerge as unlikable people. In spite of that, the depth and descriptiveness of the writing overshadows any dislike for the characters. Well worth reading.

American housewife, by Helen Ellis



Short, hilarious stories that always surprise.  Don’t accept an invitation to join her book club would be my advice.  The two-page “Southern Lady Code” alone is worth the price of admission:  “”She’s always been lovely to me,’ is code for: I don’t like her either.”  “’She’s a character,’ means drunk.” Enjoy!  185 pp.

When breath becomes air, by Paul Kalanithi



An exceptional young neurosurgeon, who is also by inclination and education deeply grounded in the humanities, wrote this book during his final days before dying of lung cancer.  At 36, the odds of his symptoms being lung cancer, with no known risk factors, were so minuscule that for months he ignored weight loss and chest pain, too busy with completing his residency in neurosurgery.  After his diagnosis, he struggles with various therapies, his full operating schedule, and his somewhat troubled marriage to a fellow doctor.  His painful choices are chronicled – what drugs to use; whether to continue to operate in the face of overwhelming fatigue, pain, and nausea; if he should leave medicine entirely and use his remaining time to follow his love of writing; whether to conceive a child, knowing that he will almost certainly not see it grow up.  Moving, sad, and beautifully written.  The world is richer for his memoir but far poorer for the loss of such a multiply gifted human being.  228 pp.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

That's not how you wash a squirrel

That's not how you wash a squirrel / David Thorne 202 pgs.

If you rescue a baby squirrel and he prefers your company to that of the great out of doors and other squirrels, it only makes sense that you build him a detailed house with several rooms and a Victorian bathtub...all before you build the wading pool out of tile.  David Thorne is as crazy as ever but in a way that I can relate a little too well.  Lucky I'm not as capable as he or my house would be unsuitable for people but perfect for cats.

Funny stuff.

Kill'em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

Kill'em and Leave:Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride,  256 pages.
McBride, winner of the National Book award for his novel The Good Lord Bird, presents an engaging, yet almost necessarily incomplete exploration of one of the most elusive celebrities of our time, James Brown.
McBride searches far and wide and finds a wealth of contradictory information about Brown, and illuminates much that was formerly obscure about a lonely, secretive man. Some that knew and loved James Brown, like the Reverend Al Sharpton give flattering accounts, others, former band members and distant relatives give less generous accounts. Much of the book dwells on the fate of Brown's estate, an estimated $100 million that was to go towards helping poor children in South Carolina and Georgia, but has instead gone to legal fees as the will has been contested in the years since Brown's death. An interesting account.

City of Secrets

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan, 194 pages.
O'Nan's sixteenth (?) novel takes place in post-World War II Jerusalem. Brand, a Latvian Jew who feels that he "accidentally" survived the Holocaust, after having been a prisoner of the Russians, then the Nazis, and then Russians again, has made it to Palestine with an assumed identity. He is working for Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary / resistance force has just put aside its differences with other like-minded groups, such as Irgun, to drive the British out of Palestine and form a Jewish state. But Brand is not sure how he feels about all of this. He is haunted by those he lost in the war, and haunted by the sense that he is not the man he used to think he was. When one of the members of his clandestine cell is betrayed, and Brand finds that standing by, doing nothing to save the man (not quite a friend, but almost) who is accused of the betrayal, is sickeningly reminiscent of his time in the camps.
An affecting, sad novel.

Lab Girl

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, 290 pages.
Jahren writes the most interesting book about her career in the sciences. Her style is smooth and straight-forward, as she chronicles her career in the sciences. She writes of how she resents the way she has been treated in the that traditional boys-club, geosciences. She writes about her relationship with her long-time colleague, Bill Hagopian, and how their combined tirelessness, drive, and ability to use outdated or cobbled-together equipment led to their successes in the lab.
The author calmly relates many details of her own fascinating story in a surprisingly calm voice. Lab disasters, family dysfunction, and medical issues are discussed, but not obsessed over. There's little drama here, problems in the lab or in life are there to be solved. Jahren writes movingly and gracefully about trees, and dirt, and geologic features, A fun, great read.