Tuesday, February 28, 2017


March: book two / John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, 191 pgs.

The second graphic novel in the trio, this book deals with the civil rights movement from 1960 through the march on Washington.  In this volume, we meet the freedom riders who were beaten, arrested, imprisoned and abused.  The movement is growing and there is some dissension in the ranks.  John Lewis is still wholly engaged in the struggle.  He moves into a position of leadership.  In this book, we get a view of the struggle at the federal level and we end with Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech.  John Lewis also spoke and the text of his speech is included in full.  Powerful stuff.

The old man

The old man / Thomas Perry, 337 pgs.

An exciting thriller that features Dan Chase, a retiree who is also an ex military intelligence officer that ended up with $20 million after a mission went wrong.  He has been in hiding for years after trying to make things right with the government.  Now he has been discovered and is on the run with he is two beloved dogs, Dave and Carol.  Yes, the dogs are named Dave and Carol and for some reason that makes me love them and their owner.  Dan is fairly prepared to be on the run. His wife died years ago so it is just him and the dogs.  His daughter is an adult and knows the drill.  He has been careful to keep her identity separate from his own. He has a lot of cash and several fake identities.  He was trained well by the military and doesn't have too much problem dispatching a few armatures who sent to kill him.  Now he has paired up with a woman looking for some adventure of her own who may also have an interesting past.  Also featured is a young agent who is hunting for Dan.  He is the only one who has seen the old man.  Since everyone in the book uses multiple names and fake identities, there isn't much reason to use their names in this review.  Overall the book was pretty exciting and as unrealistic as many of the enjoyable popular thrillers.

The Daily Show (the book)

The Daily Show (the book): an oral history as told by Jon Stewart, the correspondents, staff and guests / Chris Smith, 492 pgs.

Patrick recommended this book if I was a fan of the show or Jon Stewart.  I am both but was a little worried about a book of an oral history...how weird it that?  Turns out not weird at all. The book is arranged chronologically and covers many of the big changes that took place starting with Jon Stewart taking over the show.  There are enough people interviewed that you get a real "360" view of events.  I especially liked the viewpoints from the "back room" staff.  Many people started out as interns and worked their way up in the organization.  The show isn't perfect but it was interesting to delve into some of the issues and get a better idea of what was happening.  Although he never intended it, Stewart became one of the most trusted news sources in the country as they became better at pointing out the absurdity of the real world.

Big little lies

Big little lies / Liane Moriarty, 460 pgs.

A school trivia night turns tragic when things get out of hand and someone ends up dead.  The book traces back in flashback, six months prior to figure out where the problem started.  Three main characters are moms with kindergarten kids.  Two are old friends and a third, Jane, has just moved to town.  This book shows us the relationships of the women with each other, their kids, and their husbands.  Each has something that is eating away at them.  We go through most of the book before we find out whose body is recovered at trivia night.  This has recently been made into an HBO limited series that changes the setting from Australia to California.  After two episodes, it seems like the series is sticking pretty close to the book and that is a good thing.

Speaking American

Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk by Josh Katz, 203 pages

Kathleen wrote an excellent description of this fun, info-filled book here, so I won't expand too much. But I will say that this explains so many of the pronunciation discrepancies between my husband (a lifelong St. Louisan) and me (I grew up in Kansas and Montana). Illuminating and fun.

Moonglow: a Novel / Michael Chabon, 430 pp.

Chabon's grandfather died of cancer in the late 80s; before he did, Chabon cared for him for a week while he was on heavy pain meds.  What he learned about the story of his grandfather's life forms the contents of this novel, a 'speculative autobiography.'  I can't do this beautiful novel justice here, but it's a gorgeous rendering of the life of a twentieth century American Jewish man: hardscrabble Philadelphia beginnings, intelligence service in WWII, economic opportunities and failures in the booming postwar economy, intense fascination with rocketry and space flight, and a great deal more.  Fluid, funny, painful, and full of truth.

The Plague of Doves / Louise Erdrich, 313 pp.

My first Erdrich read and definitely not my last.  In a small town in the Dakotas in the early 20th century, an (almost) entire family is brutally murdered in their cabin.  A group of native American men are quickly fingered and hanged for the crime.  It soon emerges that they couldn't have been the killers, but the crime is never fully solved, and continues to reverberate through the lives of the townspeople and the residents of the surrounding reservation.  Erdrich lets the crime roll forward through history by telling us the story of a few fascinating characters: the young Evelina Harp and her grandfather Mooshum, the nun Mary Louise Buckendorf, and the Judge, among many others.  Not just a great novel; this is art of a readable and satisfying variety.

Does This Book Make My Butt Look Big? A Cheeky Guide to Feeling Sexier in Your Own Skin and Unleashing Your Personal Style / Carson Kressley, 181 pp.

Cheeky, yes, guide, not so much.  Occasional tips on things like the proper dress style for your figure are heavily interspersed with celebrations of Carson's life and saucy attitude.  And name dropping.  Lots and lots and lots of name dropping.  Pass.

The Unseen World: a Novel / Liz Moore, 451 pp.

13-year-old Ada Sibelius leads a very special life in 1980s Boston.  Her father, David Sibelius, runs a computer science lab at the BIT (Boston Institute of Technology, you get the idea), and as a single parent, he homeschools Ada while she works in the lab, takes her on delightful and enriching outings, and generally creates a loving world for her in almost complete isolation from her peers.  And Ada is happy until David's memory begins to fail.  Then Ada's life is turned upside-down and bewildering secrets surface.

A thoughtful meditation on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and identity, this was ably and unobtrusively read by Lisa Flanagan.  Not a thrill ride, but an intelligent and engaging listen.

Love, Nina: a Nanny Writes Home / Nina Stibbe, 320 pp.

In the mid-eighties the author worked as a nanny to a well-connected literary family in London.  She wrote letters to her sister throughout the period, and thankfully for us the sister kept all of them.  Sally reported that Stibbe's (the author of the terrific Paradise Lodge) letters made her laugh out loud, and they had the same effect on me.  Take this, a conversation about 'knicker theft:'

Me: But - this is the thing - he pegged them onto the line again, after.
MK: After what?
Me: Soiling them.
MK: Eew!
AB: (aghast) Oh no:
Me: No! Not like that, only with mustard.
                                     Both: Eew!
It put a bit of a downer on supper, really.

Love, Nina was made into a BBC series last year.  I feel a purchase suggestion coming on.

Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, a Visual Guide / Josh Katz, 203 pp.

A charming collection of infographics detailing the geographic distribution of peculiarities of American speech; the title, for example, shows that 'you guys' covers a big swath of the country, and 'y'all' - well, we all know where that is.    Katz tells us that in a tiny slice of the country around Pittsburgh the favored expression is 'yins,' and I give him points for ferreting out that where I grew up in metro Cincinnati one says 'you all.'  You'll learn a little about American speech patterns here and a lot about the mighty power of the infographic to convey data.  Lots of fun.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Best American Infographics 2016

Best American Infographics 2016 edited by Gareth Cook, 168 pages

This is a stunning collection of infographics, covering everything from plant distribution in the U.S. to long-running British reigns to the movement of refugees to the ebb and flow of baseball teams to the deaths on Game of Thrones. All are beautiful and so packed with information that I could pore over it for months without parsing all the info. Flat out awesome for info geeks.


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, 444 pages

When Levi who is called Biff (for the sound it makes when his mother smacks him upside the head) was 6, he met his lifelong best friend, who just happened to be the Messiah. This fantastically smart and funny book attempts to fill in the story of the years missing from the gospels by letting Christ's foul-mouthed, womanizing best friend tell his side of the tale. The resulting story weaves together many religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and does so hilariously, but without being offensive. This is truly one of my favorite books and I thought that the time was ripe to re-read something that celebrates religious and cultural similarities rather than differences.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky  213 pp.

This has been on my "to read" list for years and I finally did it. I'm sorry I waited so long. The story of sweet, sensitive, teen-age Charlie and his first year of high school as the not really popular younger brother to a football star and a class Salutatorian is told through letters he writes to a "friend". Charlie ends up befriended by some older kids and an understanding teacher who take him under their wings. There is all that "awful" stuff that teenagers do that they shouldn't; smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, etc. along with the usual crushes, unrequited love, bad relationships, and parental issues. This book has ended up on multiple "banned book" lists for portraying the teen years as they really are for many kids which just proves that many parents and other adults should "get a clue." Charlie is a wonderful character who navigates his life with honesty, compassion, and hope while dealing with his own demons.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman, PhD.

Dr. Richard P. Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, a raconteur, a drummer, a prankster, and an all around interesting character. He is very possibly one the most intelligent men who ever lived because of his ability to look at a problem and analyze it from all sides at once. His physics lectures are famous and still in use in college classrooms. And he is the epitome of the eccentric professor stereotype. This book is a collection of stories about his life from his childhood repairing radios for friends and neighbors through his work on the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos to his career as a professor at CalTech and winning the Nobel Prize. The stories run from the humorous and not so serious to more weighty topics like how he pushed his grief after the death of his wife from tuberculosis aside for the first atomic bomb test. The book is a fascinating look at an amazing man and his life, in his own words.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The African Svelte

The African Svelte: ingenious misspellings that make surprising sense / Daniel Menaker, 252 pgs.

A collection of unintentional mistakes, some of which make a lot of sense.  As a person with poor spelling and editing skills, some of these are probably mistakes I've made or seemed just fine when I looked at them.  However, there are some very funny examples here too. Lucky I'm able to "eek out a living" without having to be an editor or as "a last-stitch effort" I would be reduced to busking.

The illustrations by Roz Chast are wonderful.  I only with there were more of them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Difficult Women

Difficult Women / Roxane Gay, 260 pgs.

A collection of short stories by Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, which was a collection of essays.  I have also read one of Gay's fiction books and I will probably read even more of her writing as it becomes available.  Why?  Because Roxane has a lot to say!  The stories in this book focus on women and their relationships to men.  Many are sexual in nature but not all.  They tell a lot of different stories. Some of the women are VERY damaged.  Some are in odd situations or their circumstances have recently changed to something unfamiliar.  Pretty much all of them are thinkers, coping with life "stuff" and trying to survive in a world that is trying to knock them down.  Some of the stories are a bit too depressing for me.  Some are just perfect.  One of my favorites tells of the woman who is fine with her husband wanting an "open marriage." She herself has no interest in engaging with other partners but she thinks he should do so if it will make him happy.  As the story goes, we find out that "he has no game," the wife is unconcerned because she believes he will not be able to follow through and find another woman.  Although the title doesn't describe all of the women in these stories, it does provide insight into most.

I Shot the Buddha

I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill  342 pp.

This is the most recent book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. The 79 year old retired state coroner of Laos and his wife Madame Daeng are once again involved in solving mysterious murders, suspect spiritualists, and a missing monk. Dr. Siri is learning more ways to use the power of the resident spirit who inhabits his body while enjoying the process. The trail of the murderer leads Siri and Daeng across the Mekhong River into Thailand to capture the killer. Meanwhile Siri's friend Civilai investigates a phony reincarnation of Buddha and Inspector Phosey takes violent revenge on the man who nearly killed him. This installment in the series has crossed into more magical realism than the rest of the series. Now I have to wait for the author to finish another episode in the life of Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Black Wave

Black Wave / Michelle Tea, 326 pgs.

In the first part of the book, our protagonist spends about all of her time drunk, high, or having sex with someone that isn't her girlfriend.  To say this lifestyle is a mess isn't giving it enough credit.  The second half of the book, everyone is awaiting the end of the world which has been announced to be coming in one year.  Oddly, the ending leaves our subject feeling a bit hopeful.  Like now is the time to make a difference, finish her book and live happily in the book store that was given to her by her former bosses.

I have to say, the juxtaposition of a character living a supremely self destructive life, finally kind of getting it together at the end of the world is a fun read.  There is a lot of humor and many upbeat ideas included in a book that is very dark.

Th1rteen R3asons Why

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher  288 pp.

This is another of the Great Stories Club books I will be discussing at the alternative school. Clay Jensen, a high school student is delivered a box of cassette tapes recorded by his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, just before she committed suicide. The tapes are a chronicle of events in her life and the classmates involved that led to her decision to take her own life. The instructions are to listen to the tapes and then pass them along to the next person featured in the tapes. Clay doesn't want to listen to them but is compelled by what he hears, spending an entire night listening and visiting the locations of the different places Hannah was victimized by her classmates. Beginning with her arrival at a new school, the story is about mistaken perceptions that arise when teens are indifferent, malicious, or just plain cruel to each other. This is heavy stuff and not a pleasant read but you are left hoping the worst of the lot is punished and the others can get on with their lives, forever changed. This book has been turned into a series on Netflix which I'm not sure I want to watch.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini  444 pp.

This is one of the books for the Great Stories Club grant I will be discussing with teens at the local alternative school. Vizzini wrote the story of 15 year old Craig after spending time in a mental hospital following a suicidal episode. Craig is a bright teen who has worked hard to get into an elite high school but discovers he is not quite good enough--at least in his way of thinking. He spirals into a depression which makes school work impossible and even affects his eating. After he calls a suicide hotline he checks himself into a local hospital. The second half of the book chronicles his five day stay in the hospital, the different patients he encounters, and the process he goes through while trying to conquer what he calls "tentacles" which seem to be controlling his life. In spite of the subject matter this is an enjoyable book with interesting characters and situations that are very real. Sadly, Vizzini, who was a promising young author, took his own life at age 32. This book was made into a film in 2010.

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins  386 pp.

I generally like Tom Robbins' books but this one just didn't grab me. I don't know if it was the plot, the characters, or that it was written in the second person or all those things combined that made it a poor representation of his work. A stock market crash puts Gwen, a broker, in fear of losing her job. While the angst about that is going on, her boyfriend Belford's "born again" pet monkey has escaped and is on the loose in Seattle. Belford is worried more about the monkey than Gwen's crisis. Gwen hooks up with a former broker by the name of Larry Diamond who is a confusing mixture of spiritual guru and shady character. Diamand is hoping the frequently inebriated Dr. Yamaguchi's claimed cancer cure can save him and maybe revive the stock market. Gwen's friend and neighbor, the 300 lb. psychic tarot reader Q-Jo Huffington has gone missing. The story is convoluted, as Robbins' novels usually are, but never finds a groove to settle in. Disappointing.

I am Malala

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, 327 pages

At the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman, targeted because she and her father had become outspoken proponents of education rights for girls in her home country of Pakistan. I am Malala is her story of growing up in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, of fighting for what she believes in despite the threat of violence, of becoming a world-renowned champion for her cause despite her age and gender.

While the world Malala describes is fraught with violence, fear, and judgement (by different factions of Muslims, as well as by non-Muslims), the overlying message of her memoir is one of peace, of love, of acceptance, and above all, of the importance of education. This is a wonderful, inspiring book, and should be required reading in this day and age.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Two indentured servants from France, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet (later anglicized to “Duke”), arrive in New France, as Canada was known at the end of the seventeenth century.  They and their descendants proceed to quite literally hack their way through the forests primeval of North America, even jumping across the ocean to devastate an area of New Zealand, until the woods are pretty much all gone.  Of course, in 712 pages, much more happens, but an awful lot of it involves axes, then later saws and heavy machinery, as the great trees are removed for masts and other lumber and the lesser trees are simply burned in the remaining stump land to clear it for agriculture.  There always seems to be yet another rich forest to plunder just over the horizon.  The resident Native Americans are collateral damage, but also become part of the Sel and Duke lineages as the centuries go by.  Proulx develops her large cast of characters with great skill and she is, as always, a wonderful storyteller.  However, this is primarily a devastating indictment of the despoliation of the environment and native peoples of the New World.  There’s a tiny light at the end of the book, when the last generation of these intertwined families turn their work towards repairing the damage if it isn’t too late.  Bleak.  712 pp.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Winner of this year’s National Book Award, this novel imagines the “underground railroad” as an actual subterranean railway, not just a series of safe houses on the way north to freedom.  The author uses this physical train to take his characters, primarily the runaway slave, Cora, from station to station, each illustrating an aspect of white America’s mistreatment of African Americans since they first were brought here as slaves.  There’s life on a cotton plantation.  There’s exploitation as living displays behind glass in dioramas illustrating various savage customs.  There are references to forced sterilization and medical experimentation.  It’s all here and pretty overwhelmingly depressing.  It’s an important book.  I can’t say I “enjoyed” it or found the writing particularly inspired, but it should be read for the message if not the grace of its prose.  320 pp.