Thursday, June 30, 2016

Delicious Foods

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, 371 pages.

Eddie has lost his hands sometime before or during his escape from Delicious Foods. Whatever the story of this double amputation is, Eddie is not anxious to share. He and his mom, Darlene have been having rough times since her husband was killed. Nat was murdered and mutilated in a brutal racist attack in

So, maybe the coolest book to have at least part of the story narrated by crack cocaine. Crack is named “Scotty” here (maybe everywhere, I don’t know), he knows all the workers at Delicious Foods, dances with them inside their heads. He's sympathetic to their plight, and is always on the lookout for new friends. The author, who reads the audio, does a great job with the two voices, and his non-judgemental tone is eerily chilling in a couple of scenes where everything depends on brave acts and quick decisions by well-meaning characters and where those efforts are hampered by the several actors agreeing that now would be a really good time for a hit from the pipe, just to calm their nerves. Eddie is a good solid, strong character, but by the end his story is overwhelmed and overshadowed by the stories of his parents particularly Darlene, and at times it’s Scotty who tells the story best. 
A strange story, but great.

The Story of Hong Gildong

The Story of Hong Gildong Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Minsoo Kang, 100 pages.
Hong Gildong, a legendary character in Korean literature, was the illegitimate son of a high minister during the reign of King Seonjong. This may have referred to a king who reigned in the late 1500s, or it may have been one of two who reigned in the 1400s. It's also possible that he may have been fictional. Scholars disagree. In any case, it was common during that time for illegitimate sons to be treated poorly; barred from civil service, kept from taking important exams, etc.
Hong Gildong, while a loyal son, who loved his mother and respected his father, rebelled against the system. He used his intellignce, his training, and his incredible strength to quickly rise to the top of a large group of bandits. Hong Gildong and his band win every prize they seek to steal. Hong's band grows to become an army and they conquer many lands. Hong Gildong has great power, but never quite forgets the slights he suffered because of his birth.

Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story

Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story by Matti Friedman, 242 pages

Avi's story start's the book. Avi was a letter writer and a member of the Fighting Pioneer Youth. That was his unit while doing his mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force. During the 1990's The Fighting Pioneer Youth was one of two units that took turns assigned to guard the Pumpkin, a hilltop outpost in Lebanon, just across the Israeli-Lebanese border. 

After a chapter or two Friedman explains how cross-border raids into Israel in the late 1960’s led to that country’s  1982 intervention, militarily, in the Lebanese Civil War. By 1985 the Israelis had withdrawn for the most part, occupying isolated outposts in a buffer zone in a narrow strip of Lebanese territory right outside of Israel.
Friedman follows several units, including his own, as they deploy to the Pumpkin, and as the conflict, and opposition to it heat up.
An interesting book about an under-explored bit of recent history.

Harry Pottter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling, 850 pages

Harry whines quite a bit at the beginning of this, the longest in the Harry Potter saga, but once he settles down he has to deal with the fact that he knows that Lord Voldemort has returned and that few of the people in the wizarding world believe his story. As Delores Umbridge, undersecretary to the Ministry of Magic, attempts to corral power at Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and a group of like-minded students form a group to practice their defense against the dark arts. They call it the DA, short for Dumbledore's Army. Hagrid's relationship with his half-brother, and the interactions between the DA and the Order of the Phoenix (adults who fought against Voldemort last time around) are all interesting. Fred and George Weasley play strong roles in this one, too.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, 114 pages
A brilliant little novel, told in verse, unfolds in the voices of a man recently widowed, his two young sons, and Ted Hughes’s Crow. The man and his sons take turns talking about the hole in their lives the death of their beloved wife / mother has left. The man, a Hughes scholar, is grief-stricken, lost and longs to live in the past. The boys are wildly undone, confused about what has really happened, saying,

“Where are the Fire Engines? Where is the noise and clamor of an event like this?”
They are the best characters, they retain their brotherly separateness, their special shared grief, to adulthood.
The Crow, well I haven't read Hughes, and have only read a little Plath, so I don't understand him, but he's a interesting voice. Crow explains and probes and protects. He's there until the man and the boys no longer need him. Crow picks at the wounds, but keeps stronger mythical beings who mean the family more harm, at bay.
It's a moving book, it packs so much into such a small volume. It's really well worth a read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The sleep revolution

The sleep revolution: transforming your life one night at a time / Arianna Huffington 392 pgs.

Arianna Huffington was a regular at the sleep deprivation scene.  She decided to change her ways after passing out from exhaustion, hitting her head on her desk and breaking her cheekbone.  It was a wake up call that she was awake too much.  Since then, she has devoted time to getting proper rest and educating others about what she calls a sleep crisis.  Too many people are shorting themselves at night in the hopes that they can accomplish more.  Huffington points out that we are much more efficient when rested and thus more productive.  This book covers a multitude of reasons to make sleep a priority and suggestions on how to sleep better.

There are probably better books to read to help you past a bout of insomnia but this book gives a great overall picture of how important it is to your health to sleep well.

Yes, my accent is real

Yes, my accent is real: and some other things I haven't told you / Kunal Nayyar 245 pgs.

Nayyar plays Raj on the Big Bang Theory but as with everyone, he has a back story.  This short memoir tells us some of the highlights.  First, he spent most of his formative years in New Delhi where he dominated the amateur badminton circuit.  He came to America for college and ended up a popular actor.  That is the short of it.  The long of it is fun and interesting.  I listened to the audio version of this which is read by the author and confirms that yes, that accent is real.

Jonah's gourd vine

Jonah's gourd vine / Zora Neale Hurston 316 pgs.

The story of John Pearson's rise and fall post Civil War.  Pearson is a powerful African American preacher who is riddled with weakness and shortcomings.  This story is based on Hurston's parents which makes the narrative compelling.  Young John leaves his family of sharecroppers by crossing the creek into the wealthier (and whiter) area.  Like the saying about being from the wrong side of the tracks, John's youth is spent in a place that is so isolated, there were not even tracks.  He is shocked by his first sighting of a locomotive.  John falls in love with Lucy Potts, who he marries. Lucy believes in him and makes him a better man but he continues to fall short and can't stop himself from partaking in sins of the flesh.  When Lucy dies, he marries Hattie, a woman who is as bad for him as he is for her.  Their divorce leads to his expulsion from his church.  He moves on and starts over, once again finding a good woman who helps him make something of himself.

I read this book long ago but that was before I knew the back story of the author and the significance of the work.  I enjoyed it then but got much more out of it now.

Into the Wild, Yet Another Misadventure

Into the Wild, Yet Another Misadventure by Doreen Cronin  93 pp.

This is another zany installment in "The Chicken Squad" series. In this episode the four chicks of the squad, Dirt, Sugar, Poppy, and Sweetie investigate the strange new box that has been built in the yard. Sugar is convinced it holds a dangerous wild animal and organizes a surveill.../spying expedition (she can't spell surveillance). Armed with fake mustaches, an observation log for notes, and a belt made of marshmallows they set out to discover the identity of the "beast". This series is funny and full of great lines ("Poetry is never an accident, kid.") and goofy dialogue. One warning: if you see chicks hanging on a clothesline, don't get too close.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lunch with Charlotte

Lunch with Charlotte by Leon Berger  404 pp.

Charlotte Urban nee Goldberger had lunch with the author every Friday for the last 25 of her 91 years. In that time she told the story of living through the rise of the Nazis in her home city of Vienna and surviving Kristallnacht with her mother. Through contacts of her father who was trapped in England when the borders were closed, the Rothschilds, and lying about her age, Charlotte gains a place on the Kindertransport which evacuated Jewish children out of the Nazi territories. Charlotte reveals what her life during the war was like, not as a concentration camp prisoner, but as young Jewish woman living through war-time on the side of the Allies. Her story is one of strength and sorrow offered in an honest, straight-forward way.

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald  300 pp.

This book is an unusual combination of memoir, grief, falconry, and author T.H. White. Helen MacDonald, a naturalist and falconer, is devastated when her father dies suddenly. While coping with her grief and other personal crises she takes on the task of using her falconry skills to train a notoriously difficult raptor, a goshawk. She uses training methods learned from other falconers and from the writings of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. White wrote about his ultimately unsuccessful experiences with his bird called Gos and MacDonald comments on him and the errors he had made. Meanwhile she and her bird, Mabel, are having mixed results in training due, in part, to MacDonald's shaky emotional state. I'm having a hard time deciding if I like this book or not. I enjoy reading about and watching birds of prey so the details about the bird were fascinating. The rest...not so much. I give it a mixed review.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, 330 pages

When precocious eighth grader Bee chooses a family trip to Antarctica as a prize for perfect grades, her quirky, agoraphobic mother Bernadette is thrown for a loop. Told in a mostly epistolary form consisting of emails between Bernadette and her Indian online assistant, and between snooty moms at Bee's school, this is a fantastically funny book. I'm glad I bought it, as I intend to read it again whenever I need a laugh.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck

The life-changing magic of not giving a f*ck: how to stop spending time you don't have with people you don't like doing things you don't want to do / Sarah Knight, 208 p.

Yes, this book has the same basic cover design (and trim size!) of Marie Kondo's better-know book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Sarah Knight isn't making fun of that book, though; she talks about Kondo-ing her husband's sock drawer. But rather than discussing how to rid your life of physical things, Knight talks about how to rid yourself of obligations that sap your time, energy and money--obligations that you don't really care about. Her advice is all about how to determine what you actually care about, and how to jettison pretending to care about the other stuff. (She's very clear that you're not allowed to be a jerk about it.) I wish some of her examples of how to handle letting other people you don't care were a little less trivial--I know she's doing it to be funny, but it sort of undercuts her more serious points. Still, an enjoyable and useful book, assuming you don't mind salty language.

Code Talker

Code talker / Chester Nez, 310 p.

Chester Nez was one of the original 32 Navajo men (he insists that there were 32 men involved, although the official number is always given as 29) who developed an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language for the U.S. military during WWII. Besides the development of the code and his service in the Pacific, he talks about his early childhood on the reservation, government-run boarding school, and his life after wartime.

There's also an extensive index of the code, which I loved reading. Some of the words were straight translations: "until" in English was the word for "until" in Navajo. Others were easy to understand the connection; "vicinity" became "there about," and "village" became "many shelter." My favorites, though, were the terms that mixed concepts--"when" became "weasel hen," "where" became "weasel here," and "will" became "sick weasel"!

Fire Touched

Fire touched / Patricia Briggs, 342 p.

I like this series (this is book 9) about Mercy Thompson, a car mechanic who's a coyote shapeshifter married to the Alpha of the local werewolf pack. Much of what I enjoy involves the characters' relationships, which are less...dramatic than some urban fantasy books. This one begins with an outstanding action sequence involving a troll on a bridge, but the rest of the book didn't really grab me. Generally when I'm reading a series, some entries will be really memorable and some will be...not filler, exactly, but only an enjoyable visit with characters I like rather than a book that really excites me. For me, Fire Touched falls into that second category.

Chaos Choreography

Chaos choreography / Seanan McGuire, 368 p.

The fifth book in this fun urban fantasy series switches back to Verity Price as the viewpoint character. She's come to terms with giving up her dream to be a professional ballroom dancer in order to focus on the family business (cryptozoology)...but then the reality show she competed on a few years previously, Dance or Die, entices her with a reunion show, and one last time to dance. She has to juggle dancing, her fellow contestants' egos and secrets (some of the other dancers are cryptids)--and a murder investigation, as eliminated contestants begin dying.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

Veblen, a thirty-year-old free-spirited young woman, is named after that Veblen, as in Thorstein, the economist who wrote The theory of the leisure class.  She is also an amateur scholar of his works.  She lives in a run-down cottage in an un-gentrified section of Palo Alto, translates works from Norwegian, and is employed in low-level jobs, most recently as an assistant in a neurology lab at Stanford.  When a chance encounter brings her together with neurologist researcher Paul Veerland, the attraction is instantaneous and within three months, they are planning their wedding.  Paul has invented a tool that looks like a significant advance in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries and is excited that the Defense Department and a major pharmaceutical company are eager to test and acquire it. Both Paul and Veblen come from “challenging” families.  In her case, her mother is a self-involved hypochondriac who really does know more about her supposed illnesses than the doctors – she’s married to a long-suffering second husband, and Veblen’s father is incarcerated in a mental institution.  Paul has an older “special needs” brother, prone to torturing his younger sibling, and his parents are aging hippies.  He avoids his family whenever he can.  But marriage plans inevitably bring the families together.  And then there’s the situation with the squirrel that lives in her attic and is, for Veblen, a totemic spirit.  A fun and thoughtful book.  428 pp.

Mothering Sunday: A romance, by Graham Swift

One of those rare, short, deceptively simple books that resonate in so many ways.  It is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Chesil Beach. As the book opens, two young lovers are having a final fling in his bedroom on “Mothering Sunday,” when the respective family members and their servants are all absent from two grand houses.  The aristocrats are enjoying lunch out and planning for the marriage in two weeks’ time of Paul Sheringham to Emma Hobdey.  The servants have dispersed to visit their mothers on this English holiday in March 1924.  But Paul is in the arms of Jane Fairchild, an orphan with no mother to visit and a maid at the other grand house.  They’ve been lovers for seven years, since just after the end of World War I, which has taken the other young sons from both houses.  It is not only the last time they will be together, but the first time Jane has actually been in his house, their trysts having taken place in fields and barns. Is this the “romance” in the title?  Not entirely, as the book turns in a completely other direction precisely at the half-way point of the novel.  It more in the definition of “romance” as “a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.”  I won’t give any more away.  Loved it.  But then Graham Swift is himself a marvelous writer.  177 pp.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Karen Memory

Karen Memory / Elizabeth Bear, 350 p.

Karen Memery is an orphaned young woman who works as a whore. She and her employer are dragged into trouble when Karen offers a fugitive girl (Priya) sanctuary from her owner, and things get worse when the body of a murdered prostitute is dumped near Karen's place of employment. Karen works with some of the other girls in her house and U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to catch the murderer, keep the villainous Peter Battle from winning the mayoral election with his mind-control device (and blackmail), and save Priya's sister from Battle's clutches. The action near the end of the books really ramps up, setting a breath-taking pace.

Karen's voice is distinctive and fun. I love how matter-of-fact she is about her job; it's what she does, not who she is. Plus how could I not love the steam-powered full-body sewing machine.  :)

Cartoons for victory

Cartoons for victory / Warren Bernard, 256 p.

A compilation of American newspaper strips, ads, comic book covers, and single-panel cartoons that were published during WWII. Each section has commentary by Bernard giving context on particular topics: what a victory garden was, how scrap metal recycling worked, etc. I personally would have like more text, but the focus of the books is clearly the cartoons, and I can't really argue with that. The large trim size is especially nice when the art is a Sunday cartoon strip, as the reproduction is large and easy to read.

The association of small bombs, by Karan Mahajan

In 1996, three young friends set off on an errand to pick up a repaired television.  A small bomb is detonated in the Delhi market where the repair shop is located.  Only one child comes back.  Among the few dozen killed are the sons of Vikas and Deepa Khurana, who are Hindu.  Their Muslim neighbor’s son, Mansoor Ahmed, survives.  This compelling and timely novel follows the survivors, the Khuranas and the Ahmeds; the Kashmiri bombmaker; and the individual who set the bomb off, over the ensuing years as the detonation echoes through time.   It’s not a big event, or particularly newsworthy to any but those affected, but the author makes in emblematic of our times as he interweaves the stories of the victims and the perpetrators in the complex web of terrorism and its roots.  276 pp.