Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Angry Optimist

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart by Lisa Rogak, 288 pages

Jon Stewart doesn't get why Rogak wrote this book. That's clear every time he's quoted in it, talking about how boring his homebody life is, and about how he's just a comedian and not trying to change the world, for crying out loud. But I'm glad Rogak did write this. It was an interesting insight into Stewart's life before The Daily Show, as well as life within the show (the book was published before he left in August 2015). Sometimes it veered away from a biography of Stewart (who didn't share much of his life post-marriage and kids) and into an oral history of The Daily Show itself (I really didn't need all those details about what food the interns had to buy for the green room every day), but all in all it was an interesting and illuminating book.

The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales, 416 pages

Years and years ago, two idealists with a lot of money to throw around came up with the idea to create a secret force of superhuman female assassins. This became The Regional Office. However, as the name suggests, someone decided they didn't much like The Regional Office and, well, attacked it. Told through the viewpoints of Sarah O'Hara (a "client" of The Regional Office) and Rose (one of the attackers), and interspersed with plenty of flashbacks to both Sarah and Rose's back stories, this book is the tale of that attack, as well as the formation of The Regional Office.

This book is full of action, both superhuman and Die Hard-esque, and the premise for it is great. The writing, the characters, everything was lovely. However — and this may be specific to me — I had a heck of a time staying awake while reading it. That said, if you're a fan of Kelly Link or other slightly-not-normal stories, this one will be right up your alley. It was good, and I wish I wasn't struck with narcolepsy every time I read it.

The gathering, by Anne Enright

Winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, The gathering is set in Dublin where the large Hegarty clan is coming together to bury the family’s black sheep, Liam.  His closest sibling, Veronica, one of the nine surviving siblings of a dozen (and seven miscarriages), has claimed his body, a suicide, in Brighton, England.  Her own life is at a crisis point as well.  I wanted to like this well-written book more than I did, but found it slow going despite my interest in the characters and their back stories.  Perhaps there were just too many Hagertys for me.  261 pp.

Still life, by Louise Penny

This first novel in a series featuring Montreal Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is set in the rural village of Three Pines.  Gentle spinster Jane Neal has met an untimely end in the forest – seemingly shot accidentally by a bow hunter over the Thanksgiving holiday.  But called to the scene of the accident, Gamache becomes suspicious that this was no accident.  Who would want to harm her on the eve of her finally showing her art work at the local art festival?  The book is filled with interesting and well-drawn characters and I look forward to reading more of Gamache’s future cases.  312 pp.

The Cook Up

The Cook Up by D. Watkins, 261 pages.
Watkins account of growing up in Baltimore as the younger brother of one of Baltimore's biggest drug dealers. Watkins does an admirable job of depicting all the vicissitudes of  life on his mean streets. He recounts how his big brother Bip died violently, and how he, D, let his  and his brother's dreams fall apart for a while.
D started out at  Georgetown but depression took its toll on him. He ended up dealing his brothers drugs, and then more of his own, but slowly works his way out of that life. An interesting book. Interesting sidenote: Christa, who first told me about this book, also told me that I had already blogged about it, when I had not. Why would she do that?


Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely,  425 pages.
A dense and beautiful book. Turkish poet, Ka returns from Germany after living in exile there for years. Drawn by his own history and by events to stay in the the town of Kars, near the Armenian border, Ka makes the strange realization that he is now in love with Ipek, a woman he knew years ago, As he attempts to win Ipek, Ka becomes entangled in the clashing stories of the town and the times. There has been a rash of suicides in Kars among devout school-aged girls, after they had been forced to remove their headscarves in school. Ipek's sister is dating a radical Muslim activist, Blue, who has been accused of several violent acts; Blue may or may not have been behind the murder Ipek and Ka witnessed in a cafe. And the local paper pre-prints the news for that day, laying out the events that the editor expects to happen. Through the surreal and confusing events that unfold, a snowstorm that isolates the town, a violent clash between the secularists and religious extremists, Ka finds his poetic voice returning.

Their Eyes Were Watching God / Zora Neale Hurston, 219 pp.

Part three of our summer of exploring Hurston, this title generated lively discussion, and, I gather, a fair amount of personal devotion on the part of readers.  As one reader put it, Hurston has a way of making the reader almost instantly invested in the story of Janie Crawford, from the first page to the last.

The Complete Stories / Clarice Lispector, translated from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson, 645 pp.

Lispector (1920-1977)  is widely considered "the premier Latin American woman prose writer" (NYT), but I bet most Americans have never heard of her.  I certainly had not until I came across this collection, the first time her stories have been published in one volume in any language.  

In this case the psychedelic cover art is telling; Lispector's prose is unapologetically strange, if magnetic.  These stories open up interior experiences, mostly of women, at all stages of life: young newlyweds with sexual anxieties, elderly women grappling with sexual desire that no one wants, wealthy women confronting the poor and sick for the first time.  

I have to confess that I often couldn't penetrate these highly idiosyncratic points of view.  Frequently the stories lack a narrative arc that I could recognize, and even more difficult is Lispector's strange syntax and punctuation: "Only this: it is raining and I am watching the rain.  What simplicity.  I never thought that the world and I would reach this point of wheat."  (From Such Gentleness)  I wish I could understand 'point of wheat.'  Or: "Water, despite being wet  par excellence, is. Writing is.  But style is not.  Having breasts is.  The male organ is too much." (From Report on the Thing)

Still.  There were many stories that stunned me with their perfect depictions of psychological states, and her writing is certainly a refreshing mental experience.  

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charles C. Lovett  352 pp.

Peter Byerly is a young bookseller, grieving the death of his beloved wife, Amanda, the granddaughter of a woman who endowed a great book collection at a small private college. Byerly leaves their North Carolina home for the cottage they renovated in England. While in a small bookshop he finds a small watercolor portrait in a book that looks amazingly like Amanda but was painted in the 1800s. He begins a search for information about the mysterious artist "BB" and soon finds himself sucked into mystery, intrigue, and danger surrounding the "Pandosto" manuscript which Shakespeare may have actually used in writing his plays. The action covers multiple time periods from Shakespearean times, to the 19th Century, to Peter and Amanda's college romance in the 1980s to present day. The author, an antiquarian bookseller/collector and playwright, provides a meticulously detailed story that can be a bit confusing a times but I never found it boring. However the ending seemed just a little too precious.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Born Standing Up: A Comics Life

Born Standing Up: A Comics Life by Steve Martin, 207 pages.

Martin recounts his life, his beginnings as a Magician / banjo player / comedian and his somewhat unexpected rise to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike a lot of comedians who have written their own stories, Martin doesn't spend a lot of time trying to be funny here, he tells his story pretty straight. There's a lot of detail about honing his craft, about practicing every bit of his act over and over again. His transition from being a performer to being a star comes over years. He makes a good start on the Tonight Show, before losing Johnny Carson's interest for a while. He takes his old, somewhat dated material as far as he can, before starting on the new material and attitude that strike a chord with a huge audience
Martin also doesn't waste a lot of the reader's time with accounts of all the wonderful things that other celebrated folk had to say about him, which is a relief. It's doesn't seem to be a book written just to fulfill a contract, but because Martin wanted to recount a story. And it is a good one.

Multiple Choice

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 101 pages.

An interesting literary work whose structure is, according to the notes in the back of the book, "based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, which students took in December each year from 1967 through 2003."

Zambra is some sort of gem, turning sections from "Excluded Term," "Sentence Order," "Sentence Elimination," and "Reading Comprehension" into moving and effective stories about family, loss, and the Chilean government.

One of my favorite stories, in the reading comprehension section, titled(?) "Text #3" includes the question:

89. After reading this text, you would rather:
A) Not have read it.
B) Not have children.
C) Have many children.
D) Not have a father.
E) Have a parrot.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets, an Oral History / SvetlanaAlexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich, 470 pp.

I struggle to begin a post about a book so unusual, eye-opening, moving, enlightening and even entertaining that I know I won't do it justice. Alexievich has spent decades recording lengthy conversations of ordinary former Soviets: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Tajiks, and Armenians, among others. Through the voices of a huge array of people representing all walks of the post-Soviet experience, the reader is taken inside the fall of Communism in a new way. The west experienced the collapse of the USSR with almost unalloyed jubilation; the picture looks different from the point of view of many ordinary Russians for whom the Revolution has ranged from disappointing to terrifying. I especially appreciated the thoughts of those who seemed to have had real love for the Soviet ideal. These speakers will concede the excesses of Stalinism but affirm that the notion of working for society as a whole rather than oneself alone had meaning for them, and that they are unmoored by the excesses, vulgarity, violence, and indifference of the capitalist 'freedom' they now enjoy.

Alexievich's technique is amazing. She allows her subjects to speak without filter and without seeming to insert herself into the process. The beauty lies in the choice and juxtaposition of subjects, and what I assume must be an amazing sympathetic quality, so intense is the material she's drawn from these people.

Super Extra Grande

Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated by David Frye, 156 pages

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is an extreme version of a large animal vet. Set in a distant future in which Latin Americans pioneered quick space travel (go across the galaxy in a matter of hours!), Super Extra Grande tells of Dr. Sangan's escapades with the tsunami (an alien whale-like creature that's easier measured in kilometers than feet or inches) and the laketon, a single-celled organism that is often hundreds of kilometers in diameter. Both of these tales focus on the doctor, who is larger than life himself, being eaten and expelled by these creatures. And along the way, he attempts to help avert a political catastrophe among the galaxy's seven intelligent races.

It's an interesting story, and the parts where Dr. Sangan is navigating through these huge beasts are scientifically compelling, similar in style to The Martian. However... there are two major stumbling blocks for me. First, the recognized human language is Spanglish, which is left as-is in the text. For someone with only 7th-grade Spanish under my belt, it was not exactly easy to follow. Second, Dr. Sangan (and, I'm suspecting, Yoss) veers toward misogyny WAY too much. And seems really obsessed with the reader knowing the doctor's sexual tendencies, despite the total lack of sex in the book. That gave me the creeps WAY more than the detailed descriptions of the tsunami's digestive tract. Not really sure I can recommend this one.


Agatha: the real life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Gillaume Lebeau & Alexandre Franc  119 pp.

After reading the reviews from Christa and Kara I had to read this one. I read all of Agatha Christie's mysteries when in my teens & twenties. I knew some things about her "real" life including her mysterious disappearance, her marriage to an archaeologist, and learning about poisons during the war (as did P.D. James) but not much other than that. Martinette, et al present her life as a graphic novel and include appearances by her most famous investigators, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy & Tuppence. This was a fun, interesting and enjoyable book.

Cook it in cast iron

Cook it in cast iron: kitchen-tested recipes for the one pan that does it all / America's test kitchen editors 293 pgs.

I've had this book checked out for WEEKS because everything in here is so good. I did enjoy learning about how great cast iron is for keeping the heat and improving with age.  The photos and tips for each recipe are great for those of us with less kitchen confidence.  If you are looking for everything from meat main dishes to breads and desserts, take a look at this wonderful cookbook.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, 759 pages

Nearly a year after starting the project, I've finished reading the Harry Potter series to my son. There's not really much to be said about Book 7 in and of itself, except that it wraps up Harry's story beautifully, and the emotions and twists and turns are as vivid as they were the first time I read them. This won't be the last time I read this series, not by a long shot.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston  219 pp.

This was the last of the "Summer of Hurston" books and a re-read for me although it had been so long I had forgotten most of it. I listened to the audio book version read/performed by Ruby Dee and it was excellent. From the opening, the feeling for me is that not only were the characters "watching God", they were busy watching each other and passing judgement of them. The main character, Janie, goes through a life with three totally different husbands. The first, Logan, was the safe provider chosen by Janie's grandmother to keep her out of trouble. The second, Joe Starks, is a go-getter, determined to turn the all black communtiy of Eatonville, Florida into a prosperous town with himself running it. The third, Tea Cake, is the love match with a younger man, a gambler and grifter who sweeps her off her feet and makes her feel real love for the first time. Janie is on the receiving end of treatment by the first two that confines her to "her place" and keeps her from living as she would like. Tea Cake provides her with a freedom to be herself. The ending mixes tragedy with Janie's triumph over bowing to the opinions of others. I enjoyed this book and the discussions that went with it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The underground railroad

The underground railroad / Colson Whitehead 306 pgs.

This is the story of Cora, a slave on a southern plantation. Her life is tough but when the plantation is inherited by the brother of the previous owner, things are only going to get worse.  Caesar is new on the plantation from Virginia.  He decides to escape and believes Cora go with him and be good luck.  Cora's mother Mabel is the only slave to leave and never return.  Thus begins the travels and tribulations of a runaway slave whose journey begins and ends on the underground railroad. She ends up a few places and is several times captured by a slave hunter.

The story is shocking and violent. There are some portions that are set in a different time, giving the story a fantasy vibe.

I listened to the audio version of this book that is read by the incomparable Bhani Turpin.

Before the fall

Before the fall / Noah Hawley 391 pgs.

One foggy night, a private jet drops from the air and into the ocean.  Two survivors make it to shore, Scott, a painter who had hitched a ride and JJ, the four year old son of a rich and powerful media mogul.  How does life change for the survivors? and how do each of the passengers stories intersect to end up on the doomed flight?  Hawley masterfully tells each back story and continues with the days after the flight when there are more questions than answers until answers reveal themselves.

This book was very difficult to put down and has become of my favorites of the year.

Sex object

Sex object / Jessica Valenti 204 pgs.

Jessica Valenti's fearless memoir tackles lots of subjects, sexism, harassment, drug abuse, sexual awakening, and just growing up with "issues" like dealing with anxiety.  The stories of being harassed by men beginning at a very young age are slightly shocking.  At age 12, a man on the subway rubbed against her and left his mark all over the back of her jeans.  The men who regularly expose themselves, the high school teacher who gave her a good grade after skipping weeks of class in exchange for a hug, the casual boyfriends who either stalked her or spread extreme rumors about her all fit into a story of how acceptable it is to treat women poorly.  Valenti's daughter is born extremely prematurely after a bad case of preeclampsia.  Following the birth she is unable to eat and loses a lot of weight which brings tons of complements about how good she looks as her hair is falling out due to malnutrition. The most eye opening is the end notes in which she includes comments emailed to her, left on her blog or sent via social media.  Reading these will make you wonder about the state of the world...and not in a good way.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from and Uncertain Science

The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from and Uncertain Science by Siddhartha Mukherjee, 70 pages.
Originally a TED talk, Mukherjee, the author of the award-winning Emperor of All Maladies and the recent The Gene, explores what he has learned about medicine and  how the changes in technology and philosophy have not eliminated mistakes and biases, but shifted them. A really great, but brief work from a wonderful writer.

The Loney

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, 295 pages.

During their family's annual religious outing to a remote coastal area in the northwest of England, Tonto and his somewhat disabled brother Andrew witness a miracle, but not the kind of miracle of which their devoutly Catholic parents would ever approve. It's a decently atmospheric and creepy tale, with plent of scary local characters. Worth a read.