Friday, September 30, 2016

Tempest-Tost

Tempest-Tost by Richardson Davies  288 pp.

This is the first book in the "Salterton Trilogy" and I have no plans to read the following two. There is nothing wrong with this novel per se, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere. In spite being set in Canada, it is a very British manor & village style story. The Salterton local theater group is planning to stage "The Tempest" and invade a local estate to the dismay of the owner and his gardener. The rest of the story involves the various characters and the ups and downs of their various attempts at pairing up. In spite of a miscellany of problems with the production and the lives of its actors, the show must go on. There are humorous moments in the book but, for me, there's not enough meat there to recommend it.

Memories of the Great and Good

Memories of the Great and Good by Alistair Cooke   296 pp.

This is a collection of articles written by Cooke profiling 23 men and women who were prominent in their field of endeavor. Some were taken from interviews, while others were obituary articles. Included are politicians, actors, generals, scientists, authors, and others who gained fame in one way or the other. Cooke considered all to be remarkable in their own way. Cooke reveals his wonder at the media silence about FDR's disability, commends LBJ's backroom acumen, has a chatty interview with the retired President Eisenhower, and is a little too complimentary of then California governor, Ronald Reagan. Cooke's writings about Erma Bombeck, actor Gary Cooper, and journalist, James Reston are heartfelt and complimentary. He is wholly sympathetic to P.G. Wodehouse's unfortunate duping by the Nazis. But he saves his greatest accolades for golfer Bobby Jones and Winston Churchill. This is an engaging book, ideal to read in short sittings.

Porcelain

Porcelain: A Memoir by Moby, 406 pages

Electronic artist Moby (best known for his 1999 album Play) recalls his professional career, from the days of living with squatters in a former factory in Connecticut while dreaming of being a NYC deejay to touring the world for his first album, from awkwardly and soberly dancing at raves to the creation of Play. It's a fascinating story, filled with more debauchery than you'd probably expect from the bald vegan. He makes clear his dedication to animal rights, as well as his evolving religious beliefs only rarely coming across as holier-than-thou; indeed, when he tells a story in which he does seem uppity, he quickly checks himself. I'm not sure I could handle the rockstar lifestyle he lived in the 1990s (which is when this memoir largely takes place), and I get the feeling that some of the stories are a bit embellished (nobody can remember their conversations, much less the exact words, when they're eight tequila shots into a full night of partying), but it was still an enjoyable read.

Bonus for audiobook listeners: Moby reads it himself, and provides the opening and closing music.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The end of average

The end of average: how we succeed in a world that values sameness / Todd Rose 247 pgs.

How is average determined?  Measure something a bunch of time, add it up then divide by the number of subjects.  Unfortunately, when it comes to people, what you get fits no one.  The author tells of airplanes designed in the early days of aviation when crashes were prevalent.  Someone finally realized the cockpit designed for the "average" pilot fit no one and was the cause of many failed flights.  Engineers were told to go back to the drawing board and re-design so the cockpit was easily adjustable.  Originally they said it could not be done but they soon figured out how to make it work.  Now envision this type of system in other places.  School is designed for the average student, most work places are designed for the average worker, healthcare is maximized for the average patient...but wait, just like those pilots, nobody is really "average."  What does this mean for all of us?  We need to figure out how to make these structures work for us as individuals. Sometimes this can be done, sometimes it can not because the system is too entrenched.  This book really give you a new way to look at some aspects of society that we all think need fixing and realize just how off track many of the suggestions really are.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

After Disasters

After Disasters by Viet Dinh, 265 pages

After an earthquake in India, domestic and international rescue workers and aid volunteers flood the area to provide medical assistance, feed and clothe survivors, and help build temporary shelter for those who have lost their homes. After Disasters tells of the aftermath of this earthquake through the stories of four men: Indian AIDS doctor Dev, British search-and-rescue worker Andy, former pharmaceutical rep-turned-aid worker Ted, and Piotr, a seasoned aid worker who is still fighting psychological demons from his time working in Bosnia. Their stories and pasts dip and weave around each other, creating a beautiful (though definitely not cheery) depiction of life after disasters. This is Dinh's first novel, though he's won an O. Henry prize for his short stories; I look forward to reading those, and to seeing what he has to offer in the future.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley  305 pp.

Christa blogged about this book earlier. This is a tale of love. Love of a man for his dog and the emotional roller coaster he must ride when he knows his time with her will soon end. Ted is a gay man whose greatest love is his dachshund, Lily. Ted and Lily have Monopoly nights, days at the beach, long walks, in depth discussions, and those things that devoted pet companions do. Their happiness is in jeopardy after the appearance of the "octopus" (tumor) on her head. Ted has angry conversations with the octopus who is determined to take Lily from him. The octopus becomes an obsession that soon inhabits Ted's waking and dreaming life. During this time, Ted's relationship of several years falls apart. Of course, there is the unhappy part when Lily must be euthanized, which was tough to read since I lost one of my furbabies to a brain tumor a few years ago. In spite of it all, there is the promise of a happy ending for Ted.

As You Wish

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of "The Princess Bride" by Cary Elwes  272 pp.

Cary Elwes starred as Westley, the dashing hero in the film adaptation of William Goldman's The Princess Bride.  Goldman wrote the screenplay, Norman Lear produced the film, and Rob Reiner directed it. In this book Elwes tells his own story of being hired and then performing in the film. There is much about the hours of lessons and practice involved in preparing the sword fight. Of course, there are many tales of scenes that were difficult to shoot because of the cast and crew getting the giggles. He also includes anecdotes and commentary from many of the others involved in it: Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup), Christopher Guest (Count Rugen), Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), Carol Kane (Valerie), Wallace Shawn (Vizzini), Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya), Fred Savage (the grandson), and Mel Smith (the albino). To me, the best parts of the book involve the late professional wrestler and actor, Andre the Giant, who played Fezzik, the giant. Everyone in the cast speaks of what a wonderful, if hard drinking, man he was. Besides being about the film, it is a terrific tribute to a true giant of a man.

The Wrong Stuff

The Wrong Stuff: The Adventures & Misadventures of an 8th Air Force Aviator by Truman Smith  368 pp.

Truman Smith was just 20 years old when he was sent to England to serve as a B-17 pilot. Between April and July of 1944 he flew 35 bombing missions over Europe, including during the D-Day attack on Normandy. The missions,were arduous, many lasting 8 hours or longer, under heavy anti-aircraft fire. It was not unusual to return to the base in England with 100+ bullet holes in their plane. When not flying, Smith and the rest of the flyers tried to live as much life as possible in the belief they wouldn't survive the next mission. Smith chronicles various escapades in London and other places, usually involving an excess of alcohol and sometimes women. Every time they reached the number of missions that would allow them to be moved to duty other than bombing missions. Smith is truthful about the comrades who were injured, killed, and/or suffered mental/emotional issues from the stress of their jobs. This is a view of World War II that is not shown in most historical literature.

Walking the dog

Walking the dog / Elizabeth Swados 388 pgs.


Carleen Kepper is a convict and a lifer.  Although she was not present at the scene of the crime, she was involved in an incident where two cops where killed and one severely injured.  It was basically a rich girl prank that went to far...Carleen was too into drugs and her hardcore boyfriend (although she was also married at the time).  In a stroke of luck, Carleen is paroled and is now a dog walker.  She really does have a way with dogs.  But she is also a very wealthy artist whose works are worth millions.  Prison has a way of changing a person.  Now that Carleen is out, she would like to get to know her daughter who was conceived during one visit when she and her husband decided to divorce.  Does this all sound completely wacky? Let me assure you that it is!  But it is also wonderful. Carleen is on of the most interesting characters I've discovered in a long time.  Her daughter Pony is also amazing as are most of the others in the book.  Great read for anyone who enjoys a little bit of chaos in their books.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Time to take flight

Time to take flight: the savvy woman's guide to safe solo travel / Jayne Seagrave 279 pgs.

Written for women traveling alone, the author gives tips, hints and first hand accounts of her travels.  Then she lists cities she recommends for travel adventure. The recommendations are divided into North American and European locations.  She tells you in just a few pages why the city made the cut, what to look for while there, give recommendations on where to stay and how easy it is to find quality public restrooms.  I like the way she boils it down.  Her audience is a "mature" woman, so don't look for the best night life or how to hook up.  Not that she is against it, just not her focus. A great book if you are the in the demographic.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eat Move Sleep

Eat move sleep: how small choices lead to big changes / Tom Rath 246 pgs.

Tom Rath boils it down into three things you need to be attentive to be healthy...what you eat, how much you exercise and getting quality sleep.  This book is organized into 30 chapters, each with a suggestion of a positive change in each of the three areas.  Most are things you have probably heard before but now you are encouraged to actually make the change.  Really nothing here seems all that big a deal, just start with the beginning of the list and work your way through, in 30 days, 30 months whatever it takes.  I like how this book boils it down for you.  Check out the website http://www.eatmovesleep.org/ for more information.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli pirates

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli pirates: the forgotten ware that changed American history / Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger, 254 pgs.

An interesting account of the problem with pirates in the very early days of our country. This account tells of the pirate states demand for payment to leave merchant ships alone.  If payments were not made, ships were boarded, looted with crews and passengers becoming slaves.  The United States was still a new country and desperately needed open trading conditions to grow its economy.  Thomas Jefferson was president when things came to a head. This book tells a bit of the origins of our nation's armed services when the president and congress realized paying for a Navy would be cheaper than payments demanded by the Barbary state (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco).  After diplomatic solutions failed, war was on.  This also may be the first attempt by the U. S. to affect regime change.  Also of interest, the realities of the speed of communication in those days.  Tripoli demanded payment within six months or threatened to declare war on the U.S.  By the time the letter reached Jefferson, there was a very short period remaining and communication could not be achieved within the six months.  For additional months then, no one in the states knew if war had been declared or not.  Orders to the Navy captains who responded were likewise unable to move any faster.  The time lag added to the intrigue.  I listened to the audio book which was forcefully read by author Kilmeade.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart, 310 pages

In Stewart's second Kopp Sisters novel (after Girl Waits With Gun), newly minted deputy Constance Kopp is struggling to find her place as a woman in a man's job (the books take place in 1915, when many states still had laws against women being police officers), and finds herself in hot water after she accidentally lets a dangerous prisoner escape. As she sets out to track down the fugitive, she must also contend with her demotion to matron of the ladies' jail, and, on the home front, taming the Broadway dreams of her youngest sister Fleurette. Based on real people and incidents, Stewart's books provide a protagonist with plenty of wit and moxie. They're quick reads, a lot of fun, and definitely worth picking up.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Vinegar girl, by Anne Tyler



The Bard moves to Baltimore.  In a retelling of The taming of the shrew, Tyler has produced a mash-up of this well-known and frequently retold (see Kiss me, Kate) play, and the 1990 GĂ©rard Depardieu movie, Green Card.  Because it’s written by Anne Tyler, the book is funny and touching.  Kate, a plain-spoken young woman, has largely given up her own life and any ambitions she may have had to work as a teacher’s assistant in a preschool while keeping house for her absent-minded scientist father, Dr. Battista, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, and supervising teen-aged younger sister, the beautiful airhead, Bunny.  Her father is sure he is on the brink of a major breakthrough, but his work depends heavily on his research assistant, Pyotr, brought to the US by Dr. Battista on an H-1B visa.  The hitch?  Well, the visa is only good for three years, which are about over.  His solution to the dilemma, marry off Kate to Pyotr.  We know how it comes out, but it’s enjoyable getting there.  On the whole, however, I preferred Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent take on Pride and Prejudice.  237 pp.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Masked City

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman, 372 pages

In her followup to May's The Invisible Library, Cogman takes spy Librarian extraordinaire Irene Winters out of her steampunk London world and into an alternate Venice, a city ruled by the fae and in a perpetual state of Carnivale. So why would Irene, who is desperate to avoid the chaotic worlds, in this hotbed of fae? Well, she has to rescue her apprentice Kai, a dragon who has been kidnapped and is being auctioned off to the highest fae bidder. As odd as the story may sound, it's an excellent second book in this series, full of the action and humor of the first book. I'm looking forward to December's The Burning Page (and loving the rapid succession in which these books are being released!).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Still Here

Still here / Lara Vapnyar 310 pgs.

Four friends who immigrated from Russia are living in New York City.  They are hitting middle age with all the joys that go along, relationship breakups, seeking success that just WILL NOT COME, and generally figuring things out.  Although their American lives seem different, they are struggling with similar issues.  Regina is married, not sure she loves her husband but at least likes him. Vica and Sergey are married to one another but not sure they should be.  Vadik is the glue that holds the group together but is beginning to wonder if he should continue.  He works for Regina's husband, had dated Vica and is Sergey's best friend.  When Sergey and Vica split, Vadik allows Sergey to move into his apartment and discovers he is not the ideal roommate.

This group is fun to follow.  Despite the traumas of middle age, they are gaining wisdom and learning acceptance.

The Great American Whatever

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle  278 pp,

Quinn Roberts is about to celebrate his 17th birthday but he's not expecting much. He is still dealing with the death of his sister Annabeth in a car accident for which he feels responsible. Quinn is an aspiring film writer and his sister was the director of the short films they made. Since that time Quinn has been reclusive and unable to indulge in his passion for writing, although he continually writes scripts in his head. His best friend Geoff decides it's time for him to reenter the world and takes him to a party. It is there that the not-yet-out Quinn meets his first romance in a handsome college student named Amir. The result is bittersweet and leads to revelations that Quinn would rather not know but point him toward forging a life without his sister.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Imperium

Imperium by Robert Harris  305 pp.

This is a fictionalized biography of the great statesman and orator of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, told from the point of view of Tiro, his slave and secretary for 36 years. As an outsider to the circles of power, Cicero first comes to prominence during the legal proceedings against the corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. As the story follows Cicero's career we see the corruption in Roman politics including attempts to buy elections, Cicero being forced to ride the coattails of the great general Pompey to further his career, and unspeakable acts by the power-hungry. In spite of what could be a dry topic, Harris has given it a life not found in the history books. Interesting, but I do believe this author's Pompeii is a better novel.

The Kingdom of Speech / Tom Wolfe, 185 pp.

Apparently, Darwin was nearly scooped by a lowly field worker on the whole evolution thing. That's OK, though, since he got a bunch of important stuff wrong.

So says Tom Wolfe in this hilarious somewhere-between-an-essay-and-a-book publication. The upshot is that the emergence of language in humans, what Wolfe frequently refers to as the Word, represents a clean break with evolution, in that other animals have nothing even close to linguistic facility. Moreover, most of our anatomy which is differentiated from other apes, such as our (almost) hairlessness and relatively poor fighting strength, proffers an evolutionary disadvantage rather than the reverse. Language is a tool that humans developed rather than a mutation. Or something like that.

Complicated, engaging, and quite fun, many will disagree with Wolfe, but they will do so with far less verbal flair. Don't know if that proves his point, but it makes this title worth a read.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Buried Caesars

Buried Caesars / Stuart M. Kaminsky 296 pgs.

Toby Peters gets hired by no less than General Douglas MacArthur to find some embarrassing papers and a load of cash he used to pay someone off.  Toby is assisted by Dashiell Hammett on the case, Dashiell is in town to get his teeth fixed by Toby's office mate, Dentist Sheldon Mink.  Toby is also assisted by an orange cat that he rescues from the scene of a suicide.  This is a pretty standard book in this long series.  I love the L.A. setting and the World War II time frame.  I listened to the audio book which was expertly narrated by Stephen Bowlby.  Wondering if the cat is going to show up in the next book.

The Sparrow

The Sparrow / Mary Doria Russell, 408 pgs.

I had to look up some reviews of this book because I disliked it so much.  Clearly many others really like it but no part of the story is the kind of thing I like and the writing seemed sloppy.  The book may have seemed better if it were 100 pages less.  I'm more than willing to accept that I'm wrong but can sum it up thusly: aliens rape Jesuit priest.  My advice, don't bother.

The Dead and Those About to Die

The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach by John C. McManus  367 pp.

During World War II the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division, aka The Big Red One, had already fought in North Africa and Sicily and most thought they were due to be sent home when things drastically changed. Their beloved commander, Major General Terry Allen and his deputy, Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. were transferred to other commands and Major General Clarence Huebner was put in command. The division was sent to England in preparation for the planned invasion of Europe. I never realized the extent of training that went on prior to the invasion of Normandy. After watching many war movies, I also did not realize that the soldiers were actually given assigned places based on what type of artillery they carried on the Higgins boats (the landing craft used to take the men to the beach). The 1st Division suffered massive losses during the landing at the eastern end of Omaha Beach due, in part to the failure of air support to bomb the armed pillbox guard posts above the beach. The other reason for the high losses was the extreme weight each soldier carried which made it difficult to run while being relentlessly fired upon by the Germans. In spite of these difficulties many of managed to survive and go on to help defeat the Nazis and end the war. This book contains a lot of first person information from the soldiers and commanders. The title of the book comes from a quote made by General George A. Taylor on Omaha Beach, "There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here." I first learned of McManus' books when my son was in his military history class at the Missouri University of Science & Technology, where McManus is the Curator's Distinguised Professor of Military History.

Sarong Party Girls

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, 308 pages

Jazzy Lim lives with her parents in Singapore, works as an assistant to the editor of a newspaper, and spends every weekend partying at clubs until dawn, on the hunt for wealthy "ang mohs" (white guys) to fund her hard-partying ways. But since Jazzy is 26 and edging into "old maid" territory, she's now determined to snag an uber-rich ang moh to marry ASAP. Sarong Party Girls tells Jazzy's tale as she attempts to find an appropriately rich guy, using all the wrong methods.

I can say without hesitation that Jazzy's life is completely foreign to me, and not just because I've never been to Singapore. That said, the book was enjoyable, and as shallow as Jazzy may seem, she has heart, even if it takes her a while to figure that out. I particularly liked her character development through the book; personality-wise, she'd fit into an Austen novel quite well (though I can't even begin to imagine how appalled the Bennetts would be with her behavior!). I also really liked how this book ended; without giving it away, I'll say that it was a bit of a surprise, but completely appropriate.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 152 pages

Written as a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me is Coates' incredibly moving, powerful discussion of race and what it means to be a black man in the United States. This short book has received a lot of attention over the past year or so (and won the National Book Award), and for good reason: this should be required reading, particularly for those of us who have not shared Coates' experiences. A phenomenal book, and one made even more powerful as an audiobook, which Coates reads himself.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Barkskins: a Novel / Annie Proulx, 717 pp.

This is a big 'wow' of a novel, drawing a line from the early point of contact between French colonists and native peoples in what is now Nova Scotia through the present, in a story that spreads over North America, Europe, Brazil, and New Zealand. Rene Sel and Charles Duquet come to the wilds of Canada as indentured servants to cut trees and tame the forest.  Like two seeds blown on the wind, these two very different men produce descendants who interact with the forest and native peoples, impacting their ecosystem in divergent, frequently tragic, ways.

The trees are the thing here, though.  Seemingly infinite at the point of first European contact, they are slashed and burned throughout the centuries until no one can deny that they are finite and failing.  Proulx brings an amazing amount of knowledge of trees and the technology used over the centuries to destroy them.  Add to that the prodigious research into the history and language of the Mi'kmaq people and the reader understands this particular slice of Native American and European contact in a way that feels like lived experience.

Proulx is so artful - by gliding over hundreds of years of human narrative with both economy and deep detail, she manages to scale individual human life in relation to that of trees that have endured for millennia.  The art is that the reader just knows she's reading an engrossing story.

Listen, Liberal --or-- Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?

Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank, 305 pages

            The last 30 years of U.S. economic policy, which have seen stagnancy or decline for most real wages, the economic collapse of hundreds of small towns and cities, the de-industrialization of the nation, soaring inequality and a stunningly savage assault on America's most vulnerable populations, is often misinterpreted by liberals. These events are wrongly attributed to a combination of the cackling villainy of the Republicans and the well-meaning incompetence of the Democrats. Far from being defeats or "mistakes" on the part of the Democratic Party, they were, in fact, some of its greatest successes.
            Thomas Frank lays out the rationale for this thesis in Listen, Liberal, a history of the Democratic Party from the late 1970s to the present. He explains that the above events, along with the near-complete annihilation of organized labor as a meaningful political force, can only be viewed as defeats for the Democrats if one still perceives them as a party representing the interests of a majority of Americans. Frank explains the process, beginning in the early 1970s, by which the Party gradually purged itself of any significant labor influence, and came to represent the interests of the professional class: doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, scientists, and a bevy other "well-graduated" groups. This class represents the top 10% of the income scale, and while they aren't doing as spectacularly well as the top 1%, they have quite consistently benefited over the last three decades, while most of the population either tread water or slowly sank.
             Seen in this light, the Democratic Party's policy record is an enviable success. The "stunning assault" I mentioned before, targeted overwhelmingly at poor,  minority, and working class communities, is simply the byproduct of highly lucrative investment strategy. Further, it is a strategy which recent, ostensibly left-wing Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama have enthusiastically participated in through their energetic support of disastrous "free trade" deals. While the Republican Party's slow descent into hysterical nationalism, racism and wealth worship should be factored into an account of America's declining prosperity and social mobility, Frank argues, the finger should first point at the party claiming to represent the interests of the common person.

The 6:41 to Paris, by Jean-Phillipe Blondel



The action of this short novel is almost all interior and covers only the length of time it takes to travel by express train from a small town not far from Paris back into the city.  Weary after a difficult weekend with her elderly parents in her hometown, and regretting her impulsive decision to stay over Sunday evening instead of leaving as usual at the end of the weekend, Cecile grabs the second to last seat in her compartment.  But as the train pulls out, the seat is taken by a middle-aged man.  To her dismay, she realizes that despite his changed appearance (not for the better), her companion is Phillipe Leduc, a man with whom she had a brief affair when she was twenty and he slightly older.  The end of that affair, on a short trip to London, so affected her that, despite being married, the mother of a teenaged daughter, and having a very successful career, she has never really gotten over the humiliation.  In fact, she has never even been able to bring herself to visit London again.  Phillipe, who is going to Paris to visit a dying friend, also recognizes her, but like her, decides to pretend he doesn’t.  He’s not exactly proud of his actions many years ago.  Will they speak?  146 pp.