Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Known and Strange Things: Essays

Known and Strange Things: Essays by Teju Cole, 393 pages.
A truly excellent collection of essays from the Photography columnist of the New York Times magazine. Cole writes incredibly insightful pieces on photography and photographs, on literature and about the interactions of people around the world.
Okay, so the photographic essays were a little beyond me, but his essays on poets and writers were fascinating. I have started one Tomas Transtromer book, and am hunting down a second. I have dug out a collection of Derek Walcott poems for winter reading, and I have put Sebald on my list of authors to try one more time.

Born to Run

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, 510 pages.
Bruce Springsteen has written a very readable and enjoyable account of his life, from childhood to his rock and roll beginnings and on through super-stardom. He tells the strange story of his grandmother's sort of obsessive love for him when he was very young, recalling that at age three and four he could do whatever he pleased, staying up until 3am and the sleeping all day. His mother was able to remedy this situation after a while, but not before Bruce felt the lasting effect of being the center of the world. Springsteen's relationship with his father was also fairly trauma-filled, and the dysfunction there also formed him. Who is not a sum of all their parts, though. Springsteen acknowledges the mental unwellness of some of his forbears, but then moves on to the music. He was part of a local band called the Castiles which had a local following. He and fellow Jersey natives also made it big locally with Child (renamed Steel Mill when they discovered another band already using the name Child). Several members of that band joined Bruce on his first album and eventually became the E-Street band. Lots of interesting stories written in a readable, introspective style. Great for fans of Springsteen and his music.

The trainable cat

The trainable cat / John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, 332 pgs.

Cats are unlike dogs in that they aren't out to please us but they are still trainable.  The authors have described nine key skills that lead to a well trained cat.  By well trained, you can encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior.  The authors have documented a lot of information about cat behavior and why they do the things they do.  Their suggestions about how to give you cat meaningful experiences by playing with them and giving them options to enjoy a variety of activities seem logical.  Also included are some photos of their cats participating in suggested activities.  Good info. for the cat obsessed (not that I know anyone like that!)

The Titan's Curse

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan, 312 pages

Book Three of the Percy Jackson series finds Percy and friends teaming up with the hunters of Artemis on a cross-country trip to save the goddess (and, with any luck, Percy's friend Annabeth). This book doesn't have nearly as many wink-wink situations with barely-disguised mythological monsters as previous books in the series, which I kinda liked; it made the plot much more cohesive. But there was still plenty of humor: my 8-year-old son cackled madly every time I had to moo like the cow-serpent (guess you had to be there). Can't wait to start in on Battle of the Labyrinth!

The Girls of Atomic City

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan   373 pp.

During World War II the government managed to pull off the biggest secret ever in the history of the world. Thousands of people divided up in sites all over the U.S. helped to create what was to become the atomic bomb. But only a handful of people working on it even knew what it was they were working on. They only knew it top secret. This book focuses on the work of the women at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge did not exist before WWII began. Is was created to house the workers and plants that were refining the Uranium aka "tube alloy" that would ultimately be used as fuel for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While some of the women were support staff, working as secretaries, nurses, and cleaners, others worked in the actually processing plants. Most in processing only how to do the small tasks given to them without knowing why or what they were doing. Oak Ridge became the town of temporary housing, roads, and processing plants that rose from the mud of eastern Tennessee. The people there were all sworn to secrecy and constantly watched to prevent the Axis powers from learning what went on there. In spite of the hardships and confinement there was socializing, family life, romances that came and went, marriages, and children born. It's a fascinating story about an important era in U.S. history.

Breaking Cat News

Breaking Cat News: Cats Reporting on the News That Matters to Cats by Georgia Dunn, 128 pages

Ever wonder what TV news reports might look like if cats ran the show? Even if you didn't, Dunn's comics are well worth reading, as they'll have every cat owner falling out of their chair laughing. Dunn based these comics on her own cats, and their personalities come to life in their tie-wearing, microphone-holding Cat News correspondent alter egos. It's hard for me to pick favorite moments -- Is it the cats reporting on that weird red dot that keeps appearing? Is it the severe weather take on the vacuum? The treatment of the impostor (house guest) sleeping on the couch? -- but the fact that it took only 30 minutes to read makes it so I don't have to choose. Yay!

(One caveat: this is only available through the library on Hoopla, so get yourself a free Hoopla account and check it out here.)

The Young Widower's Handbook

The Young Widower's Handbook by Tom McAllister, 282 pages (advanced reading copy)

Hunter Cady and his wife, Kait, were incredibly happy in their young marriage, always planning for (but never taking) elaborate trips to exotic locations around the world. But then Kait died suddenly, leaving Hunter adrift, wondering who he is supposed to be without Kait, who was the planner, the worrier, the financial manager of their partnership. After the immediate mourning period (the part filled with neighborly casseroles and awkward hugs), with anger and stress issues pouring in from his parents and in-laws, Hunter embarks on a road trip with Kait's ashes, heading west to see where life takes them.

This is a wonderful book, filled with bittersweet love, quirky situations and characters, and the perfect amount of wry humor. I was afraid when I picked it up that this would be one of those books that makes me weep constantly; thankfully, it wasn't, and instead I found myself ruminating on life and love. In his debut novel, McAllister creates wonderfully flawed and lovable characters and a story that is, if not totally believable throughout, is true to those characters and the process of grief. Definitely read this one when it's released in February 2017.

Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, 430 pages

In May 1915, the Lusitania, the most majestic ocean liner in the seas, was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing nearly 1,200 of the ship's 1,900 passengers and crew members. Dead Wake is a detailed reconstruction of Lusitania's final voyage, told from the perspective of not only various passengers and crew members, but also the captain of the U-boat, a top-secret British intelligence team, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, and various others. While I knew exactly how this would end when I started the book, I was impressed with how Larson constructed the book to keep the tension high and the "plot" moving. An excellent book for those interested in WWI history, though not recommended for fans of cruises.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by
Cathy O'Neil, 259 pages.
O'Neil, who has worked as a Quant on Wall Street, as an academic, and as data scientist for many start-ups shows how big data can be and is used used in a manner that reinforces unfounded assumptions about people with fewer resources and often ends up oppressing those who most need help. In education, college recruitment, bank loans, employment, and advertising the data collected about an individual, no matter how precise or refined, can be used against that individual when the underlying premises about what the data means are flawed. O'Neil calls for using the data in a way that helps people instead of having the whole data machine aimed at maximizing profits.
An engaging and thought-provoking look at an omnipresent issue.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The nix

The nix / Nathan Hill 625 pgs.

Many rave reviews about this book but I'm here to say I just didn't get it.  The story is fine, the characters are somewhat interesting but it just didn't click with me.  Samuel Andresen-Anderson is a college instructor whose life is mostly a lot of unfulfilled promise.  The fact that he was abandoned by his mother at age 11 seems to be a big part of the problem.  When his mother unexpectedly reappears, he is forced to reflect on his childhood and learn more about her life too.  There are some ancillary characters that entertain but don't move the story forward. I prefer it when I'm not looking forward to the end of a book because I like reading it.  At 625 pages, I feel like this book is begging for an editor.

Knits for kitties

Knits for kitties: 25 knitting patterns for making cat toys / Sara Elizabeth Kellner 112 pgs.

A treasure of crazy, cute knitting projects for cats.  All toys, no sweaters or "wearables" that would drive your cat crazy.  Each pattern lovingly mapped out with suggestions on how to embellish and personalize each item.  All effort to be undone by a cat who will rip your work to shreds!  I picked this up for the pictures and they did not disappoint.

Today Will Be Different

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple  259 pp.

I wanted to like this book but it just didn't happen. I'm sure a good portion of my problem with it was the voice of the reader on the audio book. Something about Kathleen Wilhoite's voice was grating to me. That combined with the main character's whining and angst combined to make this story a rather unpleasant experience. On the surface the story of Eleanor, an artist and one time anime animation director, who is at loose ends in her life, is fine. She has lost control of her life in spite of being married to a well known, successful surgeon and having an adorable young son. To be honest, the woman is just selfish and that plays out in a number of ways. The story opens with her listing the modest changes she plans to make in her life. At the end of the story she once again lists the same things. Meh.

Sara Moulton's Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better / Sara Moulton, 367 p.

I've never watched Sara Moulton's show, but I liked the looks of this cookbook and have enjoyed referring to it.  This is a comprehensive and straightforward look at mostly familiar foods, with attractive photos and clear instructions.  Moulton incorporates many recipes of guests on her show, in addition to her own.  So far I've had great success with Italian meatballs and several salad recipes.  This would make a nice holiday gift.

Dorie's Cookies / Dorie Greenspan, 517 pp.

One circulation of this terrific title was not enough for me (and neither is one cookie, but that's another story).  Well-organized by cookie type and perfectly photographed (just the cookies, no trendy table settings), this is a browsing pleasure.  We made the Maine bars, a simple molasses treat, and have ambitions to make more.  The only drawback for me is that the recipes are nut-intensive, which makes them off-limits at my house.

The Nightingale / Kristin Hannah, 440 p.

A World War II novel depicting the woman's war, this is the story of estranged sisters Vianne and Isabelle.  Vianne leads a quiet life in rural France with her family when her husband is forced to enlist and the Germans occupy her town. Isabelle, younger and rebellious, finds her home in the Resistance.  I found myself entirely diverted by the quality narration, solid character development, and just-right amount of physical detail in spite of the stock nature of the plot.  An almost-familiar tale, very well told.

Bright, precious days, by Jay McInerney

Thirty-two years after McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City made his reputation, he is back again on his old stomping grounds.  Yet another New York City story, which references his earlier book in the title.  I, however, found the word “precious” in the title to be more descriptive.  Although it is a compulsive read and very well written, it is hard to sympathize overly with the privileged characters’ problems, most of which are of their own making.  Corrine and Russell Calloway are a long married couple with twin children in their early adolescence.  Although successful -- Russell heads a small but well-respected literary publishing house -- they are not as financially comfortable as some of their peers and still live in their original, crumbling, loft apartment in Tribeca.  Corrine left a better-paying career post-9/11 to work for a non-profit that distributes healthy vegetables to poorer residents.  She began a short-lived affair with a wealthy man she met working at a soup kitchen immediately following the terrorist attacks.  When he reappears six years later, she is once again drawn into a relationship with him.  Meanwhile, Russell has bet everything on a book by an acquaintance who has written an account of his kidnapping and escape from the Taliban in Pakistan while at the same time dealing with a volatile young author whose book of short stories has become a literary sensation.  The Calloways best friends are also involved in various infidelities (and Russell has had more than one dalliance himself).  Inevitably, these deceptions, as well as the book deal, all blow up in their faces right in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis.  The writing is vivid and the author is obviously well-entrenched in both the fashionable and rarified world his characters move in and the publishing scene he describes.  But it left me cold. 397 pp.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

Twenty-six year old Tess goes to The Big City from the provinces and unexpectedly lands her first job at a renowned New York restaurant.  Her tastes are unformed, but the manager senses something in her that will lead to her becoming a “fifty-one percenter,” someone who exceeds expectations.  Chef tells her it “is all about balance.  The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter.  Now your tongue is coded.  A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.”  As Tess learns to love oysters, develops her wine palate, and is introduced to the world behind the scenes of a famous restaurant, she also falls in with the staff, who after a frenetic night of making diners happy, retreat in the small hours to a local bar.  There there are drugs, lots of booze, and romantic and sexual intrigue.  The novel follows Tess in her first year in Manhattan and Williamsburg as she comes into her own and learns some hard lessons.  The book won’t necessarily make you want to eat in a restaurant anytime soon.  352 pp.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Relic by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  382 pp.

This is the novel that introduced the world to FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast, the mysterious southern aristocrat who is a mystery unto himself. In the days before the opening of a grand new exhibit at the New York Museum of Natural History two young boys are found brutally murdered in the museum basement. Soon more victims are discovered and the museum scientists realize that what they are dealing with is neither human nor animal but a combination of the two. Agent Pendergast arrives on the scene from New Orleans to assist in the investigation. The museum killings are strikingly similar to unsolved ones he investigated many years before. In spite of warnings, the museum goes ahead with its lavish exhibit disastrous results. Preston & Child have taken the character of Pendergast to new levels in subsequent books.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov 239 pp.

This novel is a 999 line poem written by the fictional character John Shade just before his death. The rest of the story is a foreward and detailed commentary by Shade's neighbor and fellow professor, the equally fictional Charles Kinbote. The poem covers aspects of Shade's life including the death of his daughter and his attempts at understanding the powers that may control the universe and its inhabitants. However, the commentary is not just about the poem. The somewhat deranged Kinbote carries on about his own story, his supposed friendship with Shade, a story about the missing king of his home country of Zembla. Key in this commentary is Kinbote's belief that the poem Shade was writing before his murder was to be the story of the deposed king. Is Kinbote this King Charles II living incognito as an exile from his homeland or is he just deranged and there is no such person or place. Nabokov leaves it to the reader to decide.

The Cabinet of Curiousities

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child  466 pp.

A serial killer is loose in New York City in the eighth book in the Agent Pendergast series. But is it possible that the killer is really over one hundred years old? The murders are spectacularly brutal and Pendergast, archaeologist Nora Kelly, and journalist Bill Smithback are trying to stop him before he kills even more victims. The clues lead back to a late nineteenth century "Cabinet of Curiosities" (museum of the strange and macabre).and a man's brutal experiments in immortality. How is Agent Pendergast connected to these crimes? And will Pendergast and the others stop the killer or become his victims. This is a good, if gruesome mystery/thriller.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hot Milk

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, 218 pages.
Deborah Levy, has written a number of books, including a novel, Swimming Home,which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012,of which I have to confess I was unaware. She is a really good writer though; quiet, fun, and engaging, so this was my loss. Sofia, our protagonist, is an all-but-dissertation anthropologist who was working as a barista and caring for her mother, a self-centered and controlling hypochondriac named Rose. Sofia has been relying in turn on her mother for financial support. She and Rose have now traveled from England to Almeria, in southern Spain, to see specialist Dr. Gomez in the hope that he can somehow help  Rose with her ever growing list of imagined maladies. In Almeria Sofia encounters jellyfish and attractive strangers and begins to see a way back to her own life. Sofia is a charming character, unembarrassed by her many flaws and aware of all that she is quietly enduring. She and other characters talk about the confusion they face in their lives, the effect that others have upon them, and the roles they are forced to play, A well-written and enjoyable book.

Razor Girl

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen, 333 pages.
Former police detective, and current health inspector, Andrew Yancy returns in this second novel set among the more ethically challenged citizens of the Florida Keys. While tagging along with his former partner, and hoping to get back in the sheriff's good graces and return to the police force, Yancy meets Merry Mansfield, a specialist in faked car accidents. Merry's specialty gives rise to the title. There's a lot going on in this book, with reality TV stars, mobsters, and, as with Yancy's debut, Bad Monkey, neighbors who want to block the main character's view.
A fun read for fans of Hiassen.