Sunday, July 31, 2016

Smoke: A Novel

Smoke: A Novel by Dan Vyleta, 431 pages
Vyleta's novel is set in a British boarding school, where the sons of the ruling class are taught to appear virtuous. In it, he gives us a world where sin literally shows on the sinner.  Smokes issues from the sinners body; the darker the sin, the heavier, sootier, and more noticeable the smoke. Wisps of smoke are emitted as one imagines an act, contemplates a sin, or becomes lustful, or angry. A fight between students leaves them both with darkened clothes, the stains sure to be noticed by the headmasters, with punishment to follow. The book is an interesting exploration of good and evil, arbitrary class divisions, and emotion and madness. The first half of the novel builds the world well, with interesting ideas and solid characters, but I found the end a little disappointing. Overall pretty good. It left me wanting to take a look at Vyleta's other books.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, 229 pages.
Arnold Spirit, Jr. known simply as Junior when he is on the reservation, starts out his life with a few disadvantages, he lives in poverty, he is hydrocephalic and small for his age, and he is treated cruelly by many of his neighbors and schoolmates. His best friend Rowdy, who has many of his own issues, has always stood up for Junior, but that changes when Junior takes a big chance and leaves the Res school for a better education. The boys  become rivals and their friendship seems to be on the brink of destruction.
An excellent book.
The audio was read by Sherman Alexie, and he does a wod\nderful job, but apparently the illustrations in the book itself, by artist Ellen Forney are great too.
Check our catalog.

Jonah's Gourd Vine

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston, 229 pages.

We read this classic novel for our June Big Book discussion. Dr. April Langley, from the University of Missouri, Columbia, led the first discussion, and it was a lot of fun. The fifty or so readers talked about the characters in the book, mostly; with each table choosing a character with whom to identify. In the beginning of the book, the main character, John (first introduced as John Buddy) leaves the home he has lived in with his loving mother, his adoring siblings and his abusive stepfathater. He is 16, and he promises his mother that he will reform his (at this point not so) wild ways. Throughout the book he tries to be a good man, and can, in fact, be a very good man when he listens to his wife Lucy, but he cannot to seem to help but stray; he is addicted to his dalliances with other women, from Mehaly, whom he meets on his first day back at Pearson’s plantation, to the young Ora, with whom he spends his last night. John's weakness haunts him his whole life and he cannot mend the fabric of his life.
I blogged about our Wednesday night discussion in June here, and here.

Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston

Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale, 313 pages
I got to blog about this wonderful book on Wednesday night, Thursday at 3pm, and on
Friday at noon. Sure, when I blogged there it was mostly the thoughts of others, but all the blogging was filtered through my faulty listening skills, short attention span, and fondness for the snacks, so there are,by necessity, some of my thoughts in there too. I enjoyed Hurston's retelling of Exodus and parts of Leviticus (leavened with a myriad of other Moses tales from around the world) immensely. It seemed to be a very quick read. I don't know if I enjoyed it more than June's selection, Jonah's Gourd Vine, since it was so different. Hurston is an amazing writer and the discussions were great.


Disgruntled / Asali Solomon 285 pgs.

Kenya Curtis is a young girl living in Philly who feels different than her peers.  Her dad is a philosopher and activist and her mom is a librarian (yeah for librarians!).  She is being raised with some radical examples...she is a reader and a young member of "the days" an activist group led by her father who might not mind if the group got a little more aggressive.  This book follows Kenya and her family through lots of change and strife.  She is worried her parents may divorce but later learns they were never actually married.  They do end up breaking up and she ends up in a private school with very few black kids.  Where does it all lead her?  What does she make of the world?  Kenya is a great character and you get a glimpse of how she is thinking.  I listened to the audio of this book and it was read but the incomparable Bhani Turpin...who I am beginning to think should record all audio books.  Great book and a great audio production.


MARTians / Blythe Woolston 216 pgs.

Zoe graduates from high school early because her school is being closed.  She is smart and has good grades so gets two offers to interview for jobs.  She ends up at AllMART, the ubiquitous retail establishment whose training consists of singing jingles, clapping and learning the locations of all their products.  The world is a harsh place.  AllMART offers housing for employees that resembles the old time "company store" and costs more than pay.  Zoe meets MORTimmer and they live together in an abandoned strip mall. They work at AllMART and figure out how to steal what they need.  Things, of course, keep spiraling out of control and soon, a friend is arrested for stealing a that was actually abandoned at AllMART.

An interesting take on some of the things that are wrong with the world now and how they can get worse.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, 319 pages

Two decades after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is all grown up with kids of his own. The Cursed Child focuses on Harry's middle child, Albus, who doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the Potter family, and is attempting to define himself as something other than "famous Harry Potter's odd son." When he heads to Hogwarts, he strikes up an unlikely (well, to fans of the original series, anyway) friendship with Scorpius Malfoy, who is experiencing many of the same personal problems. Without going into the plot too much, the two go on a time-twisting adventure in an attempt to save Cedric Diggory, but find how one small change can cause HUGE ripples across time.

This is definitely a departure from all other Harry Potter books (including the handful of short books J.K. Rowling wrote after they were referenced in the series). For one thing, it's a four-act play, which means it has a lot more action in a much more condensed form. It's also the first official Harry Potter thing not written directly by J.K. Rowling (who provided the story, but didn't write the script). There are definitely some elements I wasn't a huge fan of, and I must say that I missed the subtle hints that Rowling dropped throughout the books. However, it's excellent to pop in on the characters that we got to know so well, and see how they have developed over the years.

I'm sad that I haven't been able to see the play, which, so far, is only open in the West End. But someday it will cross the pond and, if they're able to accomplish half the crazy stage directions, it'll be AMAZING to see.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks,: Life and Death under Soviet Rule / Igort, 365 pp.

Igort is an Italian cartoonist who spent years in Russia and Ukraine capturing stories.  His investigations coalesce into two distinct threads: the great famine in Ukraine under Stalin and the murder of journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya.

The organization of the book is occasionally confusing, with occasional switchbacks from 1930s Ukraine to contemporary Moscow and the Chechen conflict and tangential testimonies from other Russians interfiled.  But the material is so intense, horrific, and graphic that it's almost a relief to be disoriented; a straightforward narrative might be unbearable.  

The drawings are perfect: evocative without calling attention to themselves or diverting from the narrative.

Little Labors / Rivka Galchen, 130pp.

Brief, stark, thoughtful essays about Galchen's early days as a mother, capturing the wonder and ferocity of her attachment.  She describes feelings and scenarios that are familiar but just off-kilter enough to be fresh and sometimes startling.  True and original without being the least bit syrupy.

The book, like its subject, is small, attractive and brightly colored, as is Galchen's baby when wearing her 'Guantanamo orange' puffy snowsuit, described in the essay Orange.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus / Steven Rowley 305 pgs.

Lily is a 12 year old dog whose "companion" is a gay man (Ted) who is so in love with her, she is the only relationship he has.  They have a lot of routines, for example, Thursday night is the night they talk about cute boys.  They have a monopoly night, a pizza night, long discussions, you get the picture.  Ted is about as crazy about Lily as many others that I know who are devoted to their pets.  But the STORY here is that Lily has a problem.  An octopus has taken up residence on her head. Even though most of the book talks about the octopus, we know it is a tumor and that this story will end in sadness.  Along the way, there is a great adventure, a lot of silliness that takes you right into the snot filled ugly cry that you will have when the octopus takes his toll.

Rowley has a sweet way with words and is obviously a man who understands my type of pet relationship.

Moses, Man of the Mountain

Moses, Man of the Mountain / Zora Neale Hurston 310 pgs.

Zora Neale Hurston takes on the biblical story of Moses and the Exodus.  Starting with the birth of Moses and ending with the migration of the Israelites to Canaan, Zora puts her stamp on this famous story.  Moses is depicted as a great guy who is devoted to learning, reading, and spending time with Mother Nature.  He is mentored first by Mentu and later, his father-in-law.  He devotes his life to freeing the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh.  Along the way, he is tested by the people who all seem to want something from him.

In many ways this matches the biblical version, but it is also different in many ways.  Hurston does a great job with letting us get to know the characters and she is sublime about making the story teach us a lesson.  I'm finding when reading Hurston, a big part is just paying attention.  There is no shortage of timeless messages for the attentive reader.

Saga: Volume 6

Saga: Volume 6 by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples, 152 pages

After a time-jump, volume 6 picks up with Alana and Marko traveling the universe in a heist-filled attempt to track down their lost daughter, Hazel. It's hard to go into much more detail without giving away the earlier books, but I'll say that this one is as good as all the others, and makes me even more excited to see where this story is headed. If you haven't read this series, PLEASE. START. NOW. It's fantastic.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman, art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, 64 pages

Enn and Vic are teenage boys on their way to a party when they accidentally stumble into the wrong house. But hey, there's still a party going on, so they may as well stick around and, you know, talk to the girls... even if they're a little...weird. This isn't my favorite Gaiman short story, but I like Moon and Ba's artwork. I don't really have too much to say about this one. It's good enough that it's worth a read, and short enough that you won't feel like you wasted a bunch of time if you read it and don't like it. (And hey, they're making a movie out of it next year, so it might be worth checking out for background, if nothing else.)

Party of One

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes, 274 pages

In Party of One, native St. Louisan Dave Holmes offers up his coming-of-age memoir, spanning from his days as a Catholic school kid through his awkward college years and straight into his stint as an MTV VJ. Throughout the awkwardness, Holmes figures out how to accept his homosexuality, and "find his people" (those people being music nerds like himself). Holmes presents his story through immensely relatable episodes (yes, we've all made absolute fools of ourselves in front of our friends and those we might like to impress), as well as some less relatable (I don't know that any of his readers will have their own stories about hosting ill-fated MTV contests and the soothing power of Nick Lachey), but all are spurred on by the pop music that was influencing him at the time. All of the anecdotes are well-told, candid, and laced with a wry humor. Definitely a memoir worth reading!

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald  394 pp.

Sara arrives in the small town of Broken Wheel Iowa from Sweden with plans to visit her long time pen pal, Amy. Unfortunately, she arrives in time to learn her friend had died. The residents of the small dying town set Sara up in Amy's house for the duration of her stay. The connection between Amy and Sara was all about books and there are plenty of references to numerous titles in the story. Sara ends up helping the town by setting up a bookshop in the mostly shuttered town main street. Most of the contents for sale come from Amy's library. Besides the tale of how the book shop improved the lives of the town's residents, there is a love story angle. The townsfolk hatch a plan for Sara to marry and thus be able to stay in Broken Wheel after her tourist visa expires. Unbeknownst to them, Sara has already found love and their plot disrupts the natural order of things. Enter a suspicious immigration official and things get very complicated. There are side plots about the conservative, church lady, Caroline, and a much younger man, alcoholic George and his missing daughter, and the abrasive, outspoken Grace who runs the diner. The multiple references to specific books and the variety of characters make this book a winner.


Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate  245 pp.

This book is one of my selections for the Treehouse Book Club. Jackson is a 10 year old with an imaginary friend, a large (think "Harvey") cat named Crenshaw. Crenshaw is not your average imaginary cat. Besides his great size he enjoys bubble baths and purple jelly beans. Jackson first met Crenshaw when he was little and his family was homeless and forced to live in their minivan for several weeks. It has been a long time since Jackson has seen Crenshaw but he suddenly reappears just when things are once again coming to a crisis in Jackson's family. His father has MS and has recently lost his job. Jackson's mother is working multiple part-time jobs so they can get by. Unfortunately, they are once again facing homelessness and sell most of their possessions at a yard sale in hopes of staying in their small apartment. Crenshaw doesn't solve the family's problems but he helps Jackson cope with the stress of what is going on around him. There is a temporary happy resolution to the homelessness issue which leaves the story with a hopeful ending. The explanations of what imaginary friends do when they aren't being needed is wonderful.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The nest

The nest / Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney 353 pgs.

What can you say about the Plumb family?  They are a group of extremely flawed individuals who don't make much of a family until one of them taps into a inheritance promised to all.  Each of the Plumb kids was counting on the money from "the nest" to make something right in their lives but now oldest brother Leo has been bailed out of a drunken driving wreck where his young passenger lost a foot.  This means the remaining money is about 10% of what was originally promised.  Everyone is a little peeved, to say the least. But then Leo steps up, tells them he will pay the back and charms everyone so they believe him.  He is rebooting his life and going to get it all together!  But what are the chances?  As much as you want to dislike many of these characters, you just can't.  They are all so very human and real.  First time author Sweeney does such a fabulous job here with so many of life's mysteries.  How many bad choices can one make?  Why does money mess with everything?  How does a bad childhood start you out on the wrong foot?  I can't say enough good about this book. One of my favorites of the year.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Come Hell or Highball

Come hell or highball / Maia Chance 307 pgs.

Lola Woodby is newly widowed but isn't TOO sad about it.  Her cheating husband Alfie wasn't a catch...aside from the fact that he was rich.  The rich part turns out not to be true.  He was being supported by his rich family and leaves Lola penniless.  Unaccustomed to doing without her highballs and gin, Lola and the cook Berta leave together with beloved Pomeranian Cedric and try to figure out how to make it.  They get an offer they can't refuse...steal a film back for a $3,000 reward.  This is prohibition era so that money will keep them quite well for quite awhile.  But they have to find the film.

Written as an almost screwball comedy, Lola and Berta are modern day heroines...they have guts and charisma and Berta makes divine cinnamon rolls.  Their task is difficult and they really don't know who they are dealing with but start finding out when people end up murdered.  Not the smoothest investigators around, these two keep it together and make a memorable duo.


Heartburn / Nora Ephron 179 pgs.

Mark and Rachel are so happy together.  They have one child and one on the way. They have successful careers, many friends and oh, the one bad thing...Mark is having an affair.  The affair is so intense, he is planning to leave Rachel as soon as she gives birth.  Rachel finds out.  She is devastated but Mark tells her it is a mistake...he won't see the other woman again...he doesn't exactly say he is sorry.  Rachel soon finds out, it is because he is NOT sorry. And, he is still seeing the other woman.  Rachel still loves him but sees this just isn't going to work out.  She steels herself and sells a ring he gave her so she has the money to walk out.

This best selling novel is based on Nora's real life marriage to Carl Bernstein and was also made into a movie.

Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

Ms. Marvel, vol. 5: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson, art by Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, and Nico Leon, 144 pages

This series just keeps knocking it out of the park. In the fifth volume, Kamala is struggling to balance her duties to her family with her work as Ms. Marvel while still keeping up with her schoolwork and social life. But guess what: it's not working. While there are plenty of smash-em-up sequences, that's not even close to the heart of this superhero story. The focus, instead, is on Kamala's failing attempt to be a good hero/daughter/friend, with plenty of social commentary on diversity thrown in, and it's all so relatable. A great, great series.

The View from the Cheap Seats

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman, 522 pages

Neil Gaiman is perhaps best known for his magical, yet somehow incredibly realistic, fiction writing, and his phenomenal graphic novel collaborations. Yet this book is neither of those. The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of more than 60 of his nonfiction writings, everything from speeches he's given to magazine articles he's written to the short essays he's penned as introductions for books or liner notes for albums. While it's definitely not a memoir, I feel like this book gives us a greater insight into Gaiman's life, primarily into those things and people who have influenced his writing career, as well as his methodology. That said, we also get insights into the worlds of people as varied as Lou Reed, Stephen King, and Syrian refugees.

While some may quibble with the topical organization of the book (yes, it does get a bit repetitive when you're four comics speeches into that section), it's still a great collection, and well worth reading.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry  281 pp.

I chose this book about a man and his truck - a 1951 International Harvester pickup - solely for sentimental reasons. My husband had an old truck - a Chevy - that I nicknamed "His Mistress" because during the time he owned it he spent more time and money on it than he did me. Reading Perry's descriptions of the process of rebuilding his old IH brought back some memories. But this book is much more than that. It is not just about the truck. There are the author's gardening foibles, cooking, tales of his work as an EMT with the local volunteer fire department in his small Wisconsin hometown, descriptions of the locals, his brothers and mother, and small town life in general. Then there is the love story part involving a young woman he meets on a book tour and manages to woo and eventually marry in spite of his history of disastrous relationships for which he mostly blames himself and perhaps on his "crush" on the fictional "Irma Harding", the face of International Harvester's home appliance advertisements and classic series of cookbooks. Perry's writing is funny, touching, and philosophical. The man is a master of hilarious similes and metaphors and I frequently laughed out loud while listening to the audiobook read by the author.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

God is Round

God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World's Favorite Game by Juan Villoro, translated by Thomas Bunstead, 255 pages

If you're looking for a truly universal talking point anywhere in the world, try starting up a conversation about soccer (or, as the rest of the world calls it, football). While it hasn't really truly caught on in the U.S., the rest of the world lives and breathes by it. In this collection (of essays? of articles? it's never really clear), Villoro talks soccer in both broad strokes--fans, the mentality of the game--and in narrow discussions about specific players and their styles.

While it's obvious that Villoro has a deep love of the game at all levels of play, he has a tendency to write without giving a frame of reference for those of us who aren't as familiar with global soccer's intricacies (read: Americans). This could be more the fault of the translator, however, who must have known that this version would be marketed to the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, which are little discussed in the book. That said, I enjoyed Villoro's discussions of Cristiano Ronaldo (who he can't stand) and Lionel Messi (who he loves), as well as his ruminations about left-footedness and his scathing takedown of FIFA. I also love the sometimes-hilarious ways he describes players, which completely illustrate the players' style that, even though I'm not familiar with them, I feel like I've seen them play (for example, "When Maradona doesn't have the ball, he's as lonely as Adam on Mother's Day.")

If you're a fan of soccer only when the World Cup rolls around every four years, feel free to pick and choose; I'd only recommend reading the whole thing if you're a diehard fan of soccer in the Spanish-speaking world.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki  422 pp.

This is an intricate story within a story. Sixteen year old Nao is horribly bullied at her school in Japan. Her father is has been out of work since the dot com bust and has unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Nao has decided she will commit suicide also because her life is so horrible. She wants to first write about the life of her 104 year great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. Nao's story is discovered by Ruth who lives on Canadian island on the Pacific Coast. She finds the "Hello Kitty" lunchbox containing Nao's writings and an vintage wristwatch on the beach after the devastating 2011 tsunami hit Japan. Debris from the Japan is turning up on west coast beaches. Ruth and her husband get caught up in Nao's story which includes elements of Buddhism, visits from spirits, World War II, and teen-age angst. This is a novel that sucks you in and you don't want to put it down because there are so many mysteries to figure out.  

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, 652 pages

My son and I have made it through Book 6 in the series. We had many discussions along the way, including why soul-encapsulating things are scarier than reanimated corpses, why he didn't like this one as much as Chamber of Secrets (his favorite because of all the action at the end), and what exactly a spoiler is and how rude it would be for him to tell his little sister about *spoilery thing at the end of the book.* We've already dived into Deathly Hallows with gusto, and I think the kiddo will be pleasantly surprised by the shocking amount of action in Book 7.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, 470 pages.

Alexievich, the winner for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, talked to people  all over Russia and in the former Soviet republics and recorded their stories. The stories come quickly, with the shifting of voice indicated sometimes with a simple dash. Everyone is upset about the changes in their lives, and how one feels about the changes in the availability of salami is a indicator of their level of hope for the future.
There are a host of grim stories here; reminiscences from the times of Stalin and the Gulag, as well as more recent accounts of rape, murder, and beatings during the wars, armed conflicts, uprisings, massacres, and other violent interactions in Chechnya, Armenia, Azerbijan, Georgia, Belarus, and other regions.
People tell Aexievich of their loss of identity, their economic dislocation, and the trauma they have experienced during the end of the Soviet era and into the present. A surprising number of people tell of their wish that communism, especially that strain found during the era of Stalin would return. Knowing that there was only one set of truths, believing that your country was great (and single-handedly defeated Hitler), and knowing that your neighbors suffering was on par with your own seems worth the price of freedom and possible failure. Everywhere the men drink and lash out at strangers, the vulnerable, and their families. The women and children, the elderly, and anyone living in a land not decidedly their own suffers horribly.
Fascinating, grim, and sad.

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson, 380 pages.

Bryson reflects on and follows his classic 1993 Notes from a Small Island with an updated tour of Great Britain. I've read several of Bryson's books before, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Home, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, but I haven't read any of his other travel books, and I don't remember him being this funny. He is really funny in The Road, in an updated, profane, Andy Rooney sort of way. His imagined dialogues with shop clerks, barkeeps and hoteliers are evil and sharp and funny. Sometimes he seems a little whiny, or self-indulgent, but then he realizes it and makes fun of that too, and it's all better.
He rips into the English (or at least certain English) for their peculiarities, their foibles, and their lack of a sense of humor (though his family and the staff of at least one McDonalds don't seem to get him either), but he does proclaim his love for his adopted home and its inhabitants. Published a year or so before the Brexit vote, it will be interesting to read his take on that, and see his adjustment on his take on the xenophobia of the English. A very fun read, and the audio is well read and features a bonus song, "The Bryson Line," which includes the line, "Great Britain is great, let's not be pedantic, the North Sea's in the east, the Irish Sea's the Atlantic".

The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China

The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China edited and translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, 150 pages.

In this collection Rexroth presents poems of love and loss, contemplative poems and even some by Chao Luan-Luan (from sometime around the 8th century) that were advertisements for the services of courtesans. All of them were written by women poets; the oldest, "A Song of Magpies" by Lady Ho, who lived somewhere 300 BCE, and the most recent were from poets who were still alive in 1973 when the book was first published. Li Ch'ing-chao, said by the editors to be "universally considered tobe China's greatest woman poet. . ." figures prominently in this volume.
In "Spring Ends," a poem mourning the passing of a loved one, she says:
The wind stops.
Nothing is left of Spring but fragrant dust. 
Although it is late in  the day,
I have been too exhausted to comb my hair. 
Our furniture is just the same,
But he no longer exists.
I am unable to do anything at all,
Before I can speak my tears choke me.
I hear that Spring at Two Rivers
Is still beautiful.
I had hoped to take a boat there,,
But I am afraid my little boat
Is too small to ever reach Two Rivers, 
Laden with my heavy sorrow.

Many of the modern poets, perhaps unsurprisingly given the time of publication, seem to be from Taiwan.
As with other similar Rexroth titles, 100 Poems from the Chinese, and Love and the Turning Year, the biographical essays about the poets add tremendously to the book.A lovely collection.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

My favorite in the series (or maybe the last one, Deathly Hallows, is better. Hard to say). The book in which Dumbledore first mentions, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione begin to understand the importance of, horcruxes. And the book in which the relationships between Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ginny first become apparent to them. As the book progresses, and the things are building to a climax, Harry commits an act that would have been murder had things gone a little differently. His has some twinges of conscience about this near-killing, but still seems more concerned about the resulting detentions than about the act that caused him to miss a Quiddich match. He's not a perfect characterThe end of the book lets the reader know that no matter what happens in the final book this won’t be a case of “everything is going to be alright”. The movie version, wherein Harry stands by and watches the killing of a person close to him, not intervening because he promised, always seemed much weaker than the original. In the book Harry is petrified by a spell that is only broken once the murder is committed, and that seems more true to character.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The revised fundamentals of caregiving

The revised fundamentals of caregiving / Jonathan Evison 278 pgs.

Ben Benjamin is a complete mess.  He is unemployed, fighting a divorce, and terminally sad about an accident that precipitated his fall from grace.  He takes a job as a caregiver to Trevor, a wheelchair bound teen who probably won't live to see 25.  It is a low paying job but all he's got.  He is fighting almost everything that is happening in his life, but unsuccessfully.  Conditions make it difficult for him to get to work on time, he gets fired.  But then he embarks on a epic road trip with Trevor, not as an employee but as a friend.  Not surprisingly, the road trip turns into kind of a mess...just like most of the things that Ben touches.  The plot here is not surprising but the personality of the characters, the pacing, and the dialog is fabulous.  I admit, I could not stop reading.  This is sentimental but but not in a cloying, heart breaking way...Ben confronts a lot of his issues as he should, blaming no one but himself.  The supporting characters are made up of several other men doing their best to be father's even though they have a long history of messing up.  Will they have a second chance?  Will things work out to a nicely tied up conclusion?  Author Evison seems to know how to make it real without making it sappy.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America / Nancy Isenberg, 460 pp.

Nancy Isenberg's massively researched and endnoted text wants to remind Americans that our idea of a classless nation is a myth, and a cruel one.  From the earliest colonial period our country has been home to men and women who have been called, at various times, offscourings, clay-eaters, lubbers, and mudsills along with more familiar epithets.  The commercially-interested settlement companies saw these waste humans as cheap labor and barriers against Native American violence, but not as people deserving of decent land, rights, or respect.  (And speaking of Native Americans, it is not Isenberg's purpose to minimize the destruction of Native peoples or the suffering of African Americans; rather, I believe she is trying to show how the subjugation of a substantial portion of the white population worsened conditions for all and maximized opportunities for exploitation by the very few.)

The early chapters on the colonial period through the Civil War were a blizzard of information, all of it interesting but some of it a bit undigested.  I found myself wishing that she were connecting a few more dots.  The latter portion, from Reconstruction, to the War on Poverty, to today, were terrific.  Her analyses of Elvis, Bill Clinton, Honey Boo Boo, and Sarah Palin, and what each of these (and many others) mean to our culture was great reading.

There is something here to offend almost everyone.  I admire her courageous writing; I was only offended that she did not include a bibliography.  Yikes!

Atlas of Lost Cities / Aude de Tocqueville, 142 pp.

From familiar ancient locales such as Pompeii and Teotihuacan, to Pripyat, outside Chernobyl, to bizarre modern developments gone wrong such as Sesena, Spain, abandoned in the wake of the crash of 2008, this was a pleasure.  I enjoyed De Tocqueville's text as she muses on the beauty and strangeness of abandoned places that were once full of life, but the stars here are the charming, fanciful, and evocative maps and drawings.  The color palette is both muted and strong.  This is one I'd like to own.

Vengeance: a Novel / Zane, 274 pp.

Wicket is a pop megastar with a lot of big secrets and a very painful past.  Her 40th birthday prompts her to return to Atlanta, her childhood, to attempt to exorcise her demons by exacting revenge against former friends who've wronged her.

I had mixed reactions to this story - Wicket is a disturbing main character in many ways.  Among other things, her difficult childhood has resulted in an intense BDSM 'problem' which is outlined in eye-popping, vicious detail.  Truly, I had no idea.

On the other hand, Zane does a great job of depicting the growth and change of a character through self-reflection and psychotherapy. In her 'Commentary by Zane' closing chapter she makes clear that her explicit goal is to remind readers that personal growth is always possible.  Bibliotherapy!  I am totally on board with that.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven / Chris Cleave, 424 pp.

It's the Blitz.  Mary North is, first, a teacher.  Then she's an ambulance driver.  She is connected to two men, best friends Tom and Alistair, one a teacher and the other an airman who endures the siege of Malta.

A subplot involves Mary's relationship with a young black boy she meets while teaching.  I found this part of the novel a bit disturbing.  The character seems positioned as a vehicle for showing the reader that Mary is more open-minded than her peers rather than an actual person in his own right.

Cleave's style is often powerful and lovely; I was especially struck by his sharp dialogue and vivid imagery of the Malta siege.  But occasionally I found his word choice and even his syntax a bit jarring.  I'm not sure I would choose another of his books.

Tales from the loop

Tales from the loop / by Simon StÃ¥lenhag, 125 pages

This interesting book pairs amazing illustrations with short stories about a smallish town in Sweden that had a particle accelerator (the loop) built beneath it.  The interesting tales are childhood memories from the time (mostly the 1970's) and leaves you wondering if things were a bit odd in this location due to the loop? maybe imperfect memory?  or maybe thing are this way all over.  It is hard to tell exactly.  Most of the stories are fairly can pick up this book and start pretty much anywhere.  I love the writing in the way that everything is told sort of offhandedly, like the twin brothers who switch bodies (something that was never noticed by their parents) or the kid who had a dinosaur living in his garage.  Very interesting stuff!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac 187 pp.

This is the Kerouac book I wish I'd read in college. While On the Road did nothing for me, Dharma Bums captured my attention. This is another autobiographical novel where Kerouac chronicles part of his life in the 1950s. Most of the action takes place in California with Raymond Smith (Kerouac) and his friend, Japhy Ryder (based on poet, Gary Snyder) who teaches him about Buddhism. Part of the lessons involve a mountain climbing expedition during which Ray really begins to understand what Japhy is teaching. Others prominent in the Beat movement are mentioned under aliases including Allan Ginsberg as Alvah Goldbook who reads his poem "Wail". Ray reaches real understanding of the Buddhist concepts on a visit home with his family before heading back to California. There is a lot of depth to be found there.

Anarchy and Old Dogs

Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill  272 pp.

This is the fourth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun. The latest arrival at the morgue is a blind man who was run down by a truck. While trying to discover the man's identity, a cryptic coded message is discovered. Upon deciphering the message, with the help of an old friend, Siri sets out to prevent an overthrow of the government from within its own ranks with another good friend, Civilai. His devoted morgue assistant Nurse Dtui goes undercover and returns with unexpected news. At the urging for Nurse Dtui, Dr. Siri makes multiple visits to the transvestite fortune teller, Auntie Bpoo, who provides comic relief. In spite of the serious nature of the events, this series packs lots of humor into its pages.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Murder in time

Murder in time / Julie McElwain 510 pgs.

I was suckered into reading this because Overdrive featured it in their "Big Read" recommendation box.  I should have known better just by looking at the cover.  I'm not one who enjoys romance or time travel very much and I can overlook a lot of gaping plot holes if the story is good.  Unfortunately, this one just isn't very good.  Kendra Donovan is a brilliant AND beautiful F.B.I. agent who is a rising star.  She participates in a raid that goes bad and almost dies.  She rehabs and can't focus on anything but revenge.  As she plots the demise of the person she deems responsible, she stumbles into a wormhole and is transported back to 1815.  Needless to say, she doesn't fit in there particularly well but manages to stumble onto a series of murders she decides is the work of a serial killer. Even though she is a hardcore and solitary agent in her "real" life, now, in the past wearing 1815 garb, she falls for a guy who falls equally hard for her.  Intersperse a bunch of killing and you pretty much have the story.  The plot holes are enormous even if you are ok with time travel, etc. The fact that Kendra does not alter her way of speaking or vocabulary at all is incomprehensible.  She, of course, is also a outlier to the way women behave in 1815 which results in a few "Well I never" comments instead of being totally ostracized is also a tad hard to believe.  Although she is a brilliant and tough F.B.I. agent, she is often unprepared for obvious results of her interrogations, etc. (and who, pray tell would EVER allow themselves to be questioned by her in 1815?).  Maybe I'm just cranky but I should have gone with my early instincts and stopped reading this early on when I realized this story is NOT for me.

Detroit Hustle

Detroit Hustle: a memoir of love, life, & home / Amy Haimerl 269 pgs.

Amy Haimerl and her husband couldn't afford Brooklyn so they bought a "fixer-upper" in Detroit.  And by fixing it up, I mean something fairly close to a gut rehab.  The house had no utilities when they purchased it because everything had pretty much been ripped out of it.

I was hoping this book would be as good as the other recent Detroit stories including "Once in a a great city" and "Detroit: an American autopsy." This book, however, spends more time talking about the authors upbringing, her relationship with her husband, and how she doesn't want to be a "gentrifier" but realizes that she can't help but be.  I didn't get a lot of valuable insights, even about the rehabbing of the house.  Amy and her husband seemed to contract every aspect of the rehab including painting so no great stories of the struggles of being handy.  Overall, if you want to read something about Detroit, find a different title.  If you want a millennial memoir, maybe this is for you.

The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline, 355 pages

In this excellent debut novel, Cline tells a fictionalized version of the Manson Family from the point of view of a young girl who becomes enamored with the cult, particularly with the other girls in it. Our narrator, Evie, is an awkward 15-year-old who is doesn't seem to fit in with the wealthy community where she lives in rural California. When she sees a few ragged girls shoplifting toilet paper and digging food out of a dumpster, her curiosity gets the better of her. Pretty soon she's tagging along with them out to a commune, and becomes infatuated with Suzanne, the leader of the titular girls. (I find it interesting that despite her descriptions of cult leader Russell's charms, Evie doesn't seem to care about him much; her magnet is Suzanne.)

This book has been getting a lot of buzz, and it's easy to see why. Evie is an excellent vessel in which to tell this story, as we watch her innocence fade while simultaneously watching the veil being lifted from her eyes. Cline's characters are compelling, and the story is wonderfully told. I'm excited to see what Cline comes up with next.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, 303 pages

Think the usefulness of your body ends when you die? In this now-classic book, Roach examines all they ways in which human dead bodies can be useful, from teaching medical students anatomy and surgery techniques to helping forensic pathologists figure out how and when a person died to making our cars safer. While this book is certainly not for the squeamish (particularly the chapter in which Roach looks into reports of cannibalism *shudder*), it is informative and surprisingly funny. I listened to the audiobook, read by Shelley Frasier, whose wry narration perfectly captures the gallows humor of Roach's writing. I left this book feeling simultaneously better informed, grossed out, slightly guilty (for laughing so hard at a book about dead people), and even more deeply convinced of my decision to leave my body to science.

Disco for the Departed

Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill  247 pp.

This mystery is part of the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr Siri is the national coroner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. He is ordered to the mountains of Huaphan Province, where an arm is found sticking out of the concrete walk that was laid from the President’s former cave hideout to his new house beneath the cliffs.   Dr Siri identifies the corpse as a Cuban soldier who had supposedly been sent home which leads to allegations of ritual murder, a tragic love story, and an encounter with a huge number of spirits in the cave hall being prepared for a government celebration. A side plot involves the faithful morgue assistant, Geung, being taken by soldiers to a location hundreds of miles away on the orders of a party boss who dislikes the idea of a man with Down's Syndrome working for the national morgue. Geung is so worried about neglecting his duties he begins to walk home, suffering injuries and illness along the way before arriving back at the morgue seriously ill with a mosquito born disease. In spite of the serious subject matter, this book, and the rest of the series, is full of humor and the wonderful characters. 


Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, 260 pages

Seattle-based blogger and comedy writer Lindy West is well-known for her penchant to speak up about injustices, particularly those related to women and fat people, and for her willingness to stare down her online trolls. If you go with that description, you might feel that a book by West would be argumentative, dismissive of those who disagree with her, and rude in it's own right...but you'd be wrong. What this memoir/collection of personal essays actually is is a series of funny, heartfelt, kind examinations of the kind of world where women who speak up are put down and "offered" rape and death threats online, as well as examinations of those online trolls and how we, as women, should respond to them.

And above all, it's inspiring to see how, while rape culture still exists and society still judges worth by dress size, the needle has moved in the years since West started her writing career. That's not to say that we can place all credit on West's shoulders, but she and women like her are the loud, well-spoken advocates women need. I appreciate West's candor in this book, particularly in her discussion of her abortion and in her examination of her past arguments; I also REALLY appreciate her abhorrence of euphemisms, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. All in all, an excellent book. As one of the blurbs on the back reads, "Required reading if you are a feminist. Recommended reading if you aren't." Couldn't have put it better myself.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Undermajordomo Minor

Undermajordomo Minor / Patrick DeWitt 317 pgs.

Lucy is a young man with a life going nowhere.  When the village priest finds him a position in a run-down castle far away, he takes it.  On his trip, he becomes acquainted with a father/son duo of pick-pockets with a hearts of gold.  His position at the castle is under Mr. Olderglough, who works directly for the mad Baron.  There are so many interesting relationships between the characters in this book but my favorite is between Mr. Olderglough and Lucy.  At one point Lucy has taken to his bed in depression over his broken love life and Mr. Olderglough is trying to 1) cheer him up and 2) get him back to work when Lucy points out to him that he has never actually been paid.  The shock by Mr. Olderglough (who is the person responsible for paying Lucy) is priceless.  I listened to the audio version of this book and reader Simon Prebble does a wonderful job.  Sometimes dark and gothic but with great humor, a recommended read.

The nest, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Knowing that one may inherit a sum of money at a certain age can sap initiative from the heir.  Leonard Plumb, Sr. knew that, so he arranged for his four children, Leo Jr., Bea, Jack, and Melody, to have access to the small sum he intended to leave each only after the youngest reaches forty.  He figured they’d have had sufficient time to find their own paths by then and it might give each a modest nest egg to use as they saw fit or give them a retirement cushion.  He died soon after making this decision.  In the intervening years, smart management by his cousin George and a booming stock market inflated the amount far beyond what he had intended.  And, regrettably, most of his children have a real and desperate need for the cash they have come to call “the nest” as Melody’s 40th birthday approaches.  A few months before her February birthday, however, Leo Jr., a handsome, charming, successful man of dubious ethics, is involved in a bad car accident and the young waitress he had lured into his sports car (while he was drunk and high) is seriously injured.  Much of the nest, at their mother’s direction, is funneled into Leo’s recovery and rehab as well as paying off the injured Matilda.  Leo’s wife strips the rest of his assets away in the subsequent acrimonious divorce.  But Leo vows to make good on the money somehow – can he?  I came to really care about the characters in this debut novel, with the exception of the slippery Leo, despite their many flaws.  I still wish poor Melody had had a proper birthday, however.  It reads like a summer vacation novel, but is surprisingly complex and thoughtful.  353 pp.