Sunday, December 10, 2017

Family Lexicon

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, 224 pages

Ginzburg’s family in this book, and the family here is her own in this novelistic memoir, are filled with odd passions, strange bits of anger, and the shared lexicon of  the title; words and phrases used by the family members, most often creations of the author’s father, Giuseppe Levi. Giuseppe uses his comically harsh vocabulary to condemn those who like the wrong books or paintings, or who dress inappropriately when hiking. Giuseppe, who is Jewish, is married to Lidia, a Catholic. Neither practice their faith and both are ardent socialists. The author herself is an observer through the first half of the book, recounting and repeating the family stories, poems, and songs and exploring the family’s interactions with one another and with their neighbors in pre-war Turin. As Mussolini and Italy draw closer to alliance with Hitler and nearer to war, the tone of the book shifts and Natalia becomes a character as well as the narrator. Where Natalia’s brothers have had to flee and hide from Mussolini’s government for political reasons since the fascists had come to power, once the war began the family must scatter, Natalia’s own situation more dangerous because the man she has married, Leone Ginzburg, is also Jewish. A memoir presented as a literary novel that evokes memory through the character spoken work and one that toys with the sense of time, fear, and memory.

A Life Discarded

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters 258 pages (2016)

Not your usual biography, this book began its life when friends of author Alexander Masters found 148 diaries in a dumpster in England. They were written by the same person over several decades, starting as a young teen. When Masters finds himself in possession of the diaries, he doesn’t systematically look through them, but picks them out almost at random, finding different details to pinpoint character traits of the writer. He relishes the idea that he can look into the world of a real person, a non-famous person who isn’t self-conscious about sharing his/her thoughts.

For a long time, Masters doesn’t know the name or gender of the writer, and refers to the writer as “I.” He finally organizes the diaries into chronological order and estimates that the diarist wrote about 40 million words, the 148 diaries being only about 1/8 of all the diaries written by this person. Eventually, Masters realizes that the diarist is likely still alive and attempts to locate him/her.

A Life Discarded is partly mystery and partly revelation about the diarist. I found it satisfying to get to know Masters and some of his friends along the way.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The quantum spy

The quantum spy / David Ignatius, 323 pages

A fast paced thriller involving high spy and espionage. The CIA has a mole they need to flush out and the Chinese have a need to beat the US in making quantum computing work.  This pits two intelligence services against each other in a classic spy tale with a cyber focus.  There is still a chance for the operatives to travel, communicate in secret code and spy on each other in person.  But the backdrop is the struggle to surpass the super computer era and move to the quantum computing era.  The CIA is buying up the work of academic and companies and forcing them to become "dark" projects.  Chinese based venture capitalists firms are trying to get there first to provide funding for these projects.  CIA boss John Vandel uses his agent Harris Chang to try and double cross his counterpart Li Zian.  What Vandel doesn't know is how close Zian is to turning Chang.  What Zian doesn't know is how close he is to getting run out of his service due to a lot of factors, not the least is his communist counterparts becoming devoted to collecting up a lot of money for themselves.  Interesting modern spy tale with some great classic spy action. 

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner  206 pp.

This is an entertaining look at the creation of items we just can't do without. This history of things like the paper clip, coffee filter, the toothbrush, and Monopoly game are presented as amusing snippets of history grouped by where the items are most likely found i.e. the kitchen, bathroom, office, etc. Humorous side comments include an ever increasing group of inventors who lost out because they didn't get patents appear throughout. This is one that is easy to pick up, read a bit, and leave for the next installment. It was ideal reading before going to sleep at night.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thanks, Obama

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt, 310 pages

In Thanks, Obama, speechwriter Litt gives readers an inside view of the Obama White House — or at least the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is where most of the executive branch works. During his years as a White House speechwriter (first for Valerie Jarrett and later for President Obama), Litt made a name for himself as the joke guy, the one who brought Keegan Michael Key's "Luther, Obama's anger interpreter" to the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And while those funny moments are certainly highlighted here and the book is definitely funny, it also offers up a clear view of the pressures of the job, the overall mood of the White House throughout the Obama administration, and a bit of the former POTUS behind the scenes. Above all, it's an uplifting book, one that, at least momentarily, brings back the "hopey, changey" attitude toward politics that propelled Obama's first election. I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Liesl & Po

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver  307 pp.

This is another book for the Treehouse Book Club. Liesl has been locked away in an attic bedroom by her evil stepmother. Her father has died and she was not permitted to visit him in the hospital before his death. She has no friends until a child ghost named Po appears one night. At the same time, a boy named Will, who is apprentice to an alchemist, makes an innocent mistake which sets a series of events in motion to draw Liesl, Po, and Will together. Soon they are on the run from the angry alchemist, the alchemist's client, and Liesl's evil stepmother. All Liesl wants to do is bury her father's ashes in the place he wanted. Will just wants to be far away from the alchemist who constantly calls him "useless". The unlikely relationships of Liesl, Po, and Will becomes a true friendship as they learn to rely on each other and find an unexpected ally. 

Monday, December 4, 2017


Spoonbenders / Daryl Gregory, ready by Ari Fliakos, 399 pgs.

The Amazing Telemachus Family does a show with a performance of their psychic powers.  Teddy Telemachus and his wife Maureen and their three kids all have power.  Or at least that is what they SAY.  In actuality, Teddy is a confidence man, the three kids are still learning what they can do and Maureen is the only real deal.  When they get booked on the Mike Douglas show, they are moments from real fame and fortune.  But the act sputters and the youngest Telemachus, Buddy, has a bit of a breakdown and their whole thing is debunked.  Fast forward, the kids are adults with their own kids.  They are not very successful, their powers are weak or maybe just a liability.  Teenage Matty has learned that he did inherit an ability from his grandmother.  He can teleport around outside his body.  However, the prep for these trips is a little bit difficult to explain.  He needs to get his power under control and his uncle Frankie is willing to help.  Of course Frankie also needs a favor from Matty...if he could find his way into the local mobster's office and learn the combination to his safe, that would be just great.  Frankie owes the guy almost $50 k.  But really, I shouldn't give anything away here.  This entire family is just delightful in their dysfunction.  They are all interesting and even the minor characters are perfectly rendered.  This is one of my favorite books of the year.  I listened to the audio that is so well done, I recommend it. If you only listen to one book this year, make it this one.

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau: a Historical Thriller / Graeme Macrae Burnet, 225 p.

Manfred Baumann lives in the dull town of Saint Louis, France, near Strasbourg.  If anything could be more dull than the town, it's Manfred's life, characterized by rigid routine and, per the cover illustration, lots of alcohol.  When a waitress from the cafe where he takes most of his meals - andouillette on Monday, choucroute on Tuesday, etc., - goes missing and an investigation is launched, Raymond begins to unravel.  At once a mystery and the subtle study of a bizarre personality, I enjoyed this very much. 

November totals!

Christa  13/4069
Jan  2/727
Kara  10/3226
Karen C  11/3548
Kathleen  9/2902
Linda  3/1031
Patrick  8/2325

Total: 56/17,828


Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, 390 pages

In this final volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss finds herself yet again stuck in a dangerous political game of which she wants no part. She's recovering from her second trip to the Hunger Games, she's worried about her friends and family, and the rebel forces are asking a lot of her... more than she can (or wants to) give. Mockingjay is a study in PTSD, both from the point of view of the person experiencing it and from the point of view of a PTSD sufferer's friend. It's by no means a cheerful book, but it's incredible. I know a lot of people aren't happy with how this book (and series) ends, but I thought it was perfect the first time I read it, and I still stand by that assessment.

The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck  356 pp.

 A German aristocrat, the wife of one of the conspirators killed after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, attempts to fulfill her promise to protect the widows and children of the other conspirators. She returns to the once beautiful stone fortress in the mountains with her children, the wife and son of her dearest friend, and another woman and her children who had been in a camp for displaced persons. But Marianne von Lingenfels has trouble reconciling her staunch ideals with the reality of their post-war lives. She feels betrayed by the others when she discovers their secrets and as they attempt to make new lives for themselves even if that means developing relationships with those who had been Nazis. There is some reconciliation among the characters but not until after her interference creates a tragedy. This book seems to be longer than it is because of the amount of difficulty and sadness within the story.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Theft by Finding

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris, 514 pages

In this hefty volume, bestselling essayist Sedaris offers up selections from his personal diaries, written between 1977 and 2002 (apparently, a second volume is planned, spanning 2003-2016). The diary entries — which sometimes ramble on for pages, and sometimes consist of just a sentence or two — start with his years of part-time jobs, ratty apartments, and long nights at the IHOP, and show his slow transition into a successful writer in a serious relationship. As a fan of Sedaris' work, I was transfixed with his evolving writing style, which grew more confident and fluid as he got older and more successful. As always, this book was peppered with his trademark wry sense of humor, and the audiobook (read by the author) was particularly excellent. Can't wait for the next volume!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman  310 pp.

This anthology of short works includes a variety of sometimes creepy, sometimes disturbing, sometimes scary, and sometimes confusing stories. Some were published prior to this collections, others were new when this collection was published in 2015. Included is a lengthy introduction in which the author discusses the nature of "trigger warnings" and brief background information on the stories in the book. There is a novelized version of a "Doctor Who" episode written for the 50th Anniversary of the television show. There is also a story with characters from Gaiman's novel America Gods. Also included is "The Sleeper and the Spindle" which was later published as an illustrated stand-alone book. As with any collection like this, there are some I liked more than others. I can't say that there were any just I didn't like or that triggered me in any way. I bought this book when it came out and it has been sitting on my shelf every since. I chose instead to listen to the audiobook read by the author who I love listening to. 

Black Dahlia

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary  80 pp.

This is another in the "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series of graphic novels by Rick Geary. In 1947 the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was discovered laying in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. The body had been drained of blood, scrubbed clean, and cut in half. A police investigation discovered her identity but not the killer(s). The local and later national press covered the discovery and investigation extensively and dubbed the victim "The Black Dahlia". Geary covers the facts and his realistic pen and ink drawings give it the feeling of an old newspaper account. The Black Dahlia murder was never solved and much has been written about it, both nonfiction and fiction.

A trick of the light, by Louise Penny

Completing a minor Penny binge with book # 7.  Clara Morrow’s long-awaited solo show at a major art gallery in Montreal is a rousing success as is the after-party at her home in Three Pines.  Then a body is found in the Morrow’s garden the morning following the party.  Horrifyingly, it turns out to be someone she knows well – her former best friend from her troubled childhood, Lillian Dyson.  But Lillian, who grew up to be an art critic, wrote a horrible review of Clara’s early work they had been estranged ever since.  Whodunit (and why do so many people get murdered in this tiny town)?  As art dealers vie to represent the newly famous Clara, her husband Peter, formerly the successful artist of the couple, struggles with his own envy and with a secret from the past.  Of course Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to investigate, and we are once more in the cozy but surprising lethal village enjoying croissants, hot chocolate, and the twists and turns of the plot.  339 pp.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Stories of your life and others

Stories of your life and others / Ted Chiang, 281 pgs.

A collection of short stories that will amaze you with the variety of subjects and how perfectly the author tells them. Every selection is thought provoking and mostly unconventional. It is difficult to pick a favorite.  Even though both of the libraries in the consortium who own this book classify it as science fiction, it seems like that label restricts these stories in a way that isn't right.  For example, two selections have clear biblical overtones that are unexpected.  The titular story is the basis for the movie "Arrival" which does feature alien visitors but is really more focused on the process of communication and the physics of time.  Sure, featuring aliens screams "SCIENCE FICTION" but somehow as you read, the alien part seems so natural and totally normal.  I'm not sure how Chiang does it but it makes me want to keep reading and discovering a perspective on something that is original and worthwhile.  Recommended for people who enjoy philosophy and having to THINK about what they are reading.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath / John Steinbeck, read by Dylan Baker,  464 p.

The powerful story of the Joads, forced off their Oklahoma farm and trying desperately to make it to California where, they are told, the work is plentiful and the living is easy, resonates today.  Steinbeck makes the hopelessness of the Joads' situation plain; they are at the mercy of forces they can not control, such as the California growers' cooperatives who keep wages horribly low, and the police who see the 'Okies' as only a problem to be driven away.  A grim, dark story that's enlivened by extremely vivid characters and human warmth.  A first-rate reading, complete with atmospheric harmonica interludes, by Dylan Baker.  Can't think of anything better for listening on a road trip west.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders, 188 pages

In this pocket-sized book of short stories, Anders offers up some wonderfully weird tales of everything from aliens returning to Earth to check on their creations (AKA humans) to a theater-critic-turned-genie at the end of the world to a love affair between two people who can see the future (though not necessarily the same one). Anders caps this excellent collection with a coda to her excellent novel, All the Birds in the Sky, answering once and for all the burning question of that book: whatever happened to Patricia's cat? (I won't answer it for you here, but I will say I enjoyed the cat's fate.) If you're a fan of Kelly Link or just like weird stories, I highly recommend this collection, though I would also recommend reading All the Birds in the Sky before you partake of that last tale.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage / Haruki Murakami, trans.. Philip Gabriel, read by Bruce Locke,  386 p.

Tsukuru leads a placid life in Tokyo designing railway stations.  But his present life is marred by an incident from his past, in which he was cast out from his group of intimate friends.  The novel tells the story of his coming to terms with that long-ago incident.

I wanted to like this, my first Murakami, but I found it dreary and depressing.  I suspect that my feelings would be different if I had read the print version; next time I will try that.

Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster / Svetlana Alexievich, trans. Keith Gessen, 236 p.

Interviews of emergency workers, their families, scientists, politicians, and ordinary people approximately 10 years after the explosion. 

If you look at election results around the globe in the past couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that when 'The People' speak, most of what they say is, well, stupid.  Alexievich demonstrates otherwise, thankfully.  The voices of ordinary farmers and laborers as they recount an experience both horrific and never-ending were profound, graceful, moving and extremely insightful.  At times the wisdom in these pages seemed to equal that of 100 novels.  The reading was so intense that I could only handle four or five pages at a sitting.

An especially memorable voice was that of Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences.  He lays out in damning detail the many ways the government's practice of putting politics before science and plain denial greatly increased radioactive exposure to the population.  In reading his words, it was hard not to think of another country that puts politics before science with results we can only begin to predict.