Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fables 18 & 19

Fables: Cubs in Toyland [vol. 18] by Bill Willingham, et al, 192 pages
Fables: Snow White [vol. 19] by Bill Willingham, et al, 168 pages

Whoo boy, does Cubs in Toyland pack a wallop. The first dozen or so volumes of this series are absolutely fantastic, but in general the quality wanes after that. But Cubs in Toyland (which focuses on the bratty Therese as she heads to a sinister version of the land of misfit toys) is an excellent though brutal entry, creating a story arc for a previously overlooked character, full of emotion, growth, and introversion. The followup, Snow White, focuses on, you guessed it, Snow White, who's faced with a visit from an ex, who has some nefarious plans up his sleeve. Not quite as good as its predecessor, but still good stuff.

Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939

Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Urlich, 998 pages.

Ullrich provides a very thorough, well-researched account of Hitler's life, and his rise to power in twentieth century Germany.
I haven't read Ian Kershaw's or Alan Bullock's accounts of the megalomaniacal  dictator (though I did read Bullock's 1992 Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, which was fascinating), but it is easy to believe that this work appears to be their equal. Ullrich is dispassionate, and shows the human side of Hitler, letters and diary entries of those who knew him and found him charming, but always lets the reader know how that charm was balanced out. Hitler seemed to love no one, at least not enough to leave a clear impression on anyone. If he loved his niece, Geli Raubal, her suicide marked it as a love of the creepiest kind. If he loved Eva Braun, then their very strict privacy, their joint suicides, and the lack of surviving letters between them, left no witnesses to that love. If he ever felt true compassion for anyone in the world (anyone non-Aryan anyway), then his duplicity, his manipulating those around him, his false words, and false acts ensured that no one knew of it.
An important book. A detailed account of how lies, lust for power and revenge, and complete lack of human feelings can lead one man onto the world stage and how the misreading of a leader and strange, strange political events can lead to destruction on an enormous scale.

LaRose

LaRose by Louise Erdrich, 373 pages.
  I read this in 2016, when it first came out (but then didn't blog about it until the end of the year round-up) and then I re-read it, or rather listened, to it for book group this year. Her is what I said late last year: 

I don't think that I have ever disliked a book by Erdrich. For me, her latest ranks among her best, along with The Master Butcher's Singing Club, and The Round House, and also, I guess, A Plague of Doves. Erdrich is an imaginative, compelling, and enthralling sort of author

When Landreaux Iron takes a shot at a large buck he has been hunting all season, his sense of accomplishment dissolves as he realizes that instead of the buck he has accidentally shot and killed five-year-old Dusty Ravitch, his neighbor's child. Through the whole of the book the two families grapple with the loss of Dusty. LaRose, Landreaux's own five-year-old, takes on the role of son for both families. He is a connection for both families and is, in turn, connected to the LaRoses of generations past, whose stories are woven into the tale.
For some reason I felt compelled to read the one-star reviews of this book on Amazon and to see what sort of things would get good reviews from them. For some, non-readers apparently, five stars meant a really nice pair of yoga pants or a deep-fat fryer. Others who reviewed more books ranged from the crumudgeonly who liked nothing, to enthusiastic readers to whom this book did not speak. Nothing pleases all readers, but I still strongly recommend LaRose.

Look: Poems

 Look: Poems by Somaz Sharif, 98 pages.

A beautiful, powerful collection of poems. The poet was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, and she gives us a different perspective on the war on terror, and the wars in the Middle East. With Sharif as our guide, the violence and the chaos are presented from the point of view of people and families who find themselves too close to it all.
The poem "Reaching Guantanomo" takes the form of a series of letters written to an unknown person named Salim, with many of the words and thouhgts redacted by an useen hand. Though the subsequent letters answer questions presumably asked, we see only part of one side of the conversation.
"Stateless Persons" recounts scattered conversations from far-off places, with no good news:
"Our phone would
rarely ring. I have no ear
          for the mu-
          sic here. They would
bury one then another, the eldest son dropping
in

the grave to
comfort the corpse, calling us
          months later
          because we were
exiles, were vagabonds, fugitives, past Sierras,
past

oil rigs
in Texas, or waiting for
          the windshield
          to clear of frost,
two expanding ovals where the Buick’s heat hit, our

eyes"

Sharif has given us a compelling and wonderful book of poems.

The Idiot

The Idiot by Elif Batuman, 423 pages.

Batuman's novel of a young woman at Harvard in the mid-1990s has an autobiographical feel. Her main character, Selin, the only child of Turkish immigrants to the US, is a little naive, sweet, hardworking, and little bewildered. Everything, from roommates to professors, and beer and cigarettes are new to her. The miniature portraits of Selin's classes, her classmates, and her professors are funny and bright, as are her curiosity and literal-mindedness
The book is relentlessly cheerful, even in it's saddest moments (Selin, in fact, observes her sadness and wonders about it) The Idiot is sort of an enchanting book. It seems like this should appeal to a wide-range of readers, it's just so good.

The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson, 291 pages.
Historian Tyson was contacted by a relative of Carolyn Bryant. He was told that Bryant had appreciated some of his previous writing and that she would speak to him. The woman at the center of the crimes committed against Emmett Till admitted to the author that she had, in fact, lied in court. She admitted that Till had not grabbed her, that he had not uttered obscenities. He was just a youngster who did nothing to deserve the torture, beating, and murder visited upon him by Bryant's husband and his half brother. Difficult to read, but a very compelling story.

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy, 207 pages

The firs part of Levy's memoir recounts her life pre-2014, when she was young. She tells of her early loves,and of her writing, and eventually of falling in love with Lucy, the woman she would one day marry. But the book is centered around 2014, after she and Lucy wed, when she, Ariel, traveled to Mongolia while her life was, unbeknownst to her, already falling apart. While in Mongolia for a story as a staff writer for the New Yorker she suffers a miscarriage in her hotel room. This events changes her, and further revelations on her return home show her that her live had, in fact, already been irrevocably changed without her noticing.  Levy writes about all this in a surprisingly moving, yet matter-of-fact way, Sad but powerful.

Goodbye, Things

Goodbye, things / Fumio Sasaki, read by Keith Szarabajka, 288 pgs.

This book is by a guy who tells us his journey from unhappy materialist to happy minimalist.  He gives you hints, tips and delves into the philosophical concepts that support a minimal life style.  It isn't just getting rid of "things" but also attitudes.  What is holding you back today?  Sasaki believes it is "things" but also the ideas that we must be a certain way so we can impress others.  Once we shed the things and the attitude, we are open to a lot more happiness.

I listened to the audio version and I don't think the reader added much to the experience.

Searching for John Hughes

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond, 285 pages

Everyone has that one celebrity that they flat-out idolize, just absolutely adore, and wish they could sit down an learn the inner thoughts of. For Jason Diamond, it's director John Hughes, the man behind Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Home Alone, and The Breakfast Club. Diamond grew up in Skokie, Illinois, in the same neighborhoods where Hughes set all of his iconic movies. But Diamond's life was much rougher than anyone in a Hughes film: Diamond dealt with an abusive father and a mother who left him homeless at 16 (literally: she moved to South Carolina and didn't invite him to come with her or plan for any place for him to stay). Diamond found relief in Hughes' films, and when he was attempting to forge a career as a writer in his 20s, Diamond made a snap decision to write the biography of the reclusive director.

Searching for John Hughes details Diamond's five-year-long failed attempt to write the definitive Hughes biography, and it does so with such honesty and humor that it's instantly relatable, even for those who have no book-writing ambitions. I really enjoyed this book, and Diamond's self-aware musings. Fun for Hughes fans, or anyone whose ever considered meeting their idols.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Thin Man

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett  269 pp.

Although I have seen (and own) all the classic "Thin Man" films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, I had never read this book. It is much like the movies with all the alcohol consumption and quirky characters who all know the famous, now former, detective Nick Charles. Charles gets caught up in a murder mystery after being approached by the daughter of an old acquaintance for help finding her father. Even though he keeps repeating that he is no longer a detective, he ends up being front and center in the investigation. I listened to the audio version and it is nicely done. My only complaint was that the woman doing the voice of Nora Charles did not give the sharpness to Nora's sarcasm that Myrna Loy gave in the films.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fables 17

Fables: Inherit the Wind [vol. 17] by Bill Willingham, et al, 144 pages

The overarching plot for this volume is right there in the subtitle: Bigby and Snow's kids are put through a series of tasks that will determine which one of them will succeed their grandfather as the North Wind. Along the way, we meet the other three cardinal winds, all of whom have designs on picking a weak North Wind successor that they can manipulate. A secondary tale takes us back to Bufkin the flying monkey, who has found his way back to Oz and is leading the resistance against the evil Nome King. Finally, in a short tale tacked onto the end of this volume, Rose Red gets the Christmas Carol treatment, visiting aspects of hope ranging from a ghostly bride to Santa himself. Not a bad volume, all in all.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway  240 pp.

Even though I'm not a fan of Hemingway's novels, I did enjoy this memoir of the time he spent in Paris and Europe when in his twenties. Also, it was very obvious what Hemingway wrote about was used by William Boyd in writing Any Human Heart which I recently blogged about. In this book Hemingway writes mainly about his friendships and acquaintances with other writers and artists including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Poiund, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. It was Stein who named those writers/artists of Hemingway's age who had survived World War I The Lost Generation.  There is also a lot about food, wine, and other alcoholic beverages because, well..., Paris. He also wrote much about his then wife, Hadley, and their son Jack, aka "Bumby". Hemingway's writing about this portion of his life ends with the beginning of the affair which ultimately led to his divorce from Hadley in 1927.

Fables 16

Fables: Super Team [vol. 16] by Bill Willingham, et al, 160 pages

In a last-ditch attempt to fend off the fear-mongering Mr. Dark, the Fables attempt to create a super team of their biggest, baddest, and least fearful, led by the temporarily wheelchair-bound Pinocchio. The entire storyline becomes an homage to (or perhaps a dig at?) the X-Men, completely ignoring anything resembling character development or depth of plot. Honestly, this is probably the most forgettable volume in Fables, simply because it's so far removed from what makes this series great. However, if I remember correctly, the next few volumes are monumentally good, and they are only possible because of an event in this one, so I guess it does have its merits.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Himself: a Novel

Himself: a Novel / Jess Kidd, 375 pp.

Mahony was raised in a tough Dublin orphanage.  In his twenties, he receives a mysterious message about his parentage, directing him to the west-coast village of Mulderrig, the place the message alleges he was born.

Any worthwhile novel set in a small Irish village will be full of outlandish characters, and this novel is no exception.  Most notable is Mrs. Cauley, long retired from the stage, but full of stage presence, an acid wit, and one heck of a wardrobe.  While putting together a local production of The Playboy of the Western World, she vows to help Mahony learn the truth about his missing mother, Orla.  Many of the novel's characters are ghosts, also not unusual in Irish fiction, although these are an especially horny bunch.  But the all-important character here is the language, rendered so well you can hear it, and often laugh-out-loud funny:

"I can't vouch for anyone else in this town, for they're mostly a shower of shites..."

"He may have been a big fat arse of a Jesus but you'd forgive him that for his superior singing voice."

"So Father Jim, sitting scratching his holy bollocks on the commode there, is of no use to us?"

Mystery, violence, magic, suspense, and romance in one highly entertaining first novel.

Roughneck

Roughneck by Jeff Lemire, 272 pages

A few years removed from his job as an enforcer in the NHL, Derek Oulette is back in his hometown, drinking too much, and fighting the ghosts of his violent hockey career, which ended after a particularly brutal hit on another player. His anger is challenged when his little sister Beth comes home, beaten up by an ex-boyfriend and addicted to Oxycontin. It's a bleak tale, but beautifully told, exploring Derek and Beth's childhood, Derek's hockey career, and their current situation. Lemire's artwork (a mixture of rough sketches and watercolors) is perfect for this story. I liked this a lot, though its depiction of a hockey player as a thug on skates (they're not all like that!) put a bit of a damper on the playoff season in which I read it.

Rabbit Cake

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett, 331 pages


A lifelong sleepwalker, Eva Babbitt died when she went sleepswimming in a river swollen by floods. Rabbit Cake follows her family through their grieving process, which is just as odd as Eva's death: 15-year-old Lizzie (also a sleepwalker) has started eating in her sleep and has dropped out of school to spend her days baking; Eva's husband has comforted himself by wearing his dead wife's lipstick and bathrobe, and by forming an unhealthy dependence on a parrot that speaks with Eva's voice; and 10-year-old Elvis has taken it upon herself to take care of the family (including staying awake at night to keep Lizzie from hurting herself) while balancing school, volunteering with the local zoo, and regular visits to the completely inept school guidance counselor.

I had some trepidation going into this book — I didn't want to read a depressing book, and that's how a lot of the dealing-with-death books I've read have been — but it was completely unfounded. Told from Elvis' point of view, Rabbit Cake is quirky, funny, touching, and as smart as its 10-year-old narrator. I absolutely loved this book. Highly recommended for fans of dysfunctional family stories, smart kids, and odd characters.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Island of the Day Before

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco  515 pp.

This is a historical novel full of the oddities and quirks that tend to populate Eco's works. It takes place in 1643 and an Italian nobleman, Roberto della Griva is the only survivor of a South Pacific shipwreck. After floating on a plank he runs into an abandoned ship, the Daphne, anchored near a small island. Roberto cannot get to the island because he is unable to swim and there is no lifeboat on board the ship. The ship seems deserted although there is plentiful food and water, live chickens and other animals, and plants growing on board. Soon he realizes he is not alone but it takes him awhile to find the other ship's resident, an old Jesuit. Amidst Roberto's reminiscences and dreams of events of his past, there is a story of the Daphne's journey to attempt measuring the elusive longitude. The priest convinces Roberto that they are stranded on what we now call the International Date Line with the island on the other side of the line. The author's pondering at the end on the possible ways Roberto's papers with the story were recovered are interesting and somewhat amusing -- Captain Bligh is included in one of them. In my opinion this isn't Eco's best work, but it isn't his worst by far.

Monday, April 24, 2017

There is no good card for this

There is no good card for this... / Kelsey Crowe & Emily McDowell, 260 pgs.

For those of us who suffer from "foot in mouth" disease, this book lays out how to avoid saying the wrong thing or saying nothing.  Most of us are born with empathy but we sometimes struggle to reveal it to people who are suffering.  A lot of good guidelines and tips.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the bardo / George Saunders, 341 pgs.

A stunning book of grief and love, the basic story follows the death of Willie, Abraham and Mary Lincoln's son.  Willie has been interred but his spirit is confused about what he should do now.  He would like to go home.  We know of this due to all the other spirits inhabiting the bardo. They have many back stories and quirks that are revealed through their conversation and interactions with each other and Lincoln, who visits his son's final resting place.

I listened to the audio version of this book.  With a full cast of 166 and music by Jeff Tweedy, it adds to the story immeasurably.

Any Human Heart

Any Human Heart by William Boyd  512 pp.

This pseudo-autobiography of the fictional Logan Gonzago Mountstuart is written in the form of journals kept throughout his life. Mountstuart is an Englishman born in Uruguay to an English father and Uruguayan mother. His parents returned to England so that he could receive a "proper British education." Mountstuart leads an somewhat interesting life of serendipity, surviving Oxford with a mediocre degree, writing a few well-received books, serving in Naval Intelligence in WWII, dealing in fine art, and basically wandering from one thing to another with varying degrees of success. Throughout it all he drinks too much, womanizes, suffers personal tragedies, and really has no concept of money and much of the world around him. The only thing that kept me reading was my admiration of how well it is written. Mountstuart is a character you love to hate but Boyd's writing compels you to keep reading.

The hate u give

The hate u give / Angie Thomas, 444 pgs.

Star Carter is sixteen and living in two worlds.  Her family lives in Garden Heights aka, the ghetto, but she attends a high rent prep school.  She is aware of the dual nature of her existence and essentially becomes two people depending on her current location.  All is going well until she runs into her childhood friend Khalil at a party and they leave together.  They get pulled over by the cops and Khalil ends up dead.  Part of Star dies that night too.  She doesn't want her prep school friends to know about her status as "the witness" but doesn't want to betray her memory of Khalil.  She struggles mightily but finds her way.  I listened to the audio version of this book, loving every minute of the great Bhani Turpin's voice and inflection.  A compelling book that gives a needed perspective.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nevertheless

Nevertheless / Alec Baldwin, 290 pgs.

A memoir from the outspoken actor who is best known for his role on 30 Rock, Baldwin takes the usual tact of telling about his childhood, his family, and his life before fame.  He talks about being a young actor, an addict and eventually a married man and father.  He tells some little tales about many people he has worked with, some of them complementary, some not so much.  He talks about his marriages, his kids, and his causes.

I listened to the audio book which is read by the author.  It did not grab me like I hoped it would.  Baldwin often seems to take the tone of someone who is talking to an audience with a low IQ.

Recommended for fans only.




The Commitment

The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family by Dan Savage  291 pp.

Dan Savage, author of the syndicated column "Savage Love", takes on gay marriage in this memoir from the days when only a couple states had that option. His mother wants him to get married. His boyfriend of ten years, Terry, doesn't want to marry because it is "acting like straight people" and would rather get tattoos showing their commitment. Their adopted son says that two men can't get married but he will come to a reception if there is cake. Various other family members have an assortment of ideas on the subject. The result is a ridiculously over priced reception (especially for ten years ago when this was written) to celebrate Dan & Terry's tenth anniversary. There will be cake (and arguments about cake) . . . and maybe a marriage.

The assistants

The Assistants / Camille Perri, 282 pgs.

Tina is media titan Roberts' assistant.  She does a great job and takes care of all the details.  One day, due to an error, she gets an expense check that should be returned to the company.  Instead, she pays of her student loan.  Not long after, Emily, the assistant up in accounting who approves expense reports confronts her.  Emily won't turn her in if they can do the same to pay off HER loans.  As more people find out what is up, they want in on the scheme.  Even though things are going along just fine, Tina starts dating Kevin, a do-gooder who believes she is working on developing a non-profit to help women with their student loan debt...not far from the truth, really.  As predicted, eventually there is a blow up and things get real.  Will Tina find her spine and fight back or will the loyal assistant be the "good girl."  Highly entertaining!

Fables 14 & 15

Fables: Witches [vol. 14] by Bill Willingham, et al, 192 pages
Fables: Rose Red [vol. 15] by Bill Willingham, et al, 256 pages

These two volumes are, in my opinion, the best part of the Mr. Dark story arc. Witches finds the magical inhabitants of Fabletown's 13th floor coming up with a scheme to take down the shadowy bad guy (Frau Totenkinder, of course, has to do it her own way). Rose Red focuses on the backstory of its titular character, giving a VERY different interpretation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but adding a level of depth to a character that has spent way too much time wallowing in despair in recent volumes. Really, I just love these particular characters, and it's great to see them in the spotlight here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl: the Taming of the Shrew Retold / Anne Tyler, 237 pp.

I have never read Taming of the Shrew or seen any of its spinoffs (Kiss Me Kate), but I enjoyed this small story, set where most (or all?) of Anne Tyler is set, in Baltimore among very ordinary people.  Kate is a rough-around-the-edges preschool teacher, at 30 still living with her professor father and sister.  When her father enthusiastically introduces her to his research assistant, Russian Pyotr, a valued scientist with visa problems,  Kate suspects a plot is at work.  If the outcome is predictable, it is fun getting there, and the characters are sweet and true, if a bit thinly sketched.  I enjoyed the audio, read by Kirsten Potter, who created a spot-on voice for Kate.  And if  Pyotr sounded an awful lot like Borat, it didn't distract much.

Before the Fall

Before the Fall: a Novel / Noah Hawley, 391 pp.

A blockbuster of a book, about the crash of a private luxury plane into the Atlantic and its aftermath.  Great suspense, strong conclusion, and terrific scenes of the survivors in the moments immediately following the crash.  My favorite bits involved the fictionalized Bill O'Reilly/Fox News, called Bill Cunningham/ALC Network, although no one will be fooled by the name change.   Hawley skewers them wonderfully, but he is nearly as cruel to the Brooklyn hipster types, as portrayed by Doug, uncle to a survivor.

I really liked Hawley's The Good Father, although I can see why Before the Fall was more popular.

Romance Reader's Guide to Life

The Romance Reader's Guide to Life / Sharon Pywell, 308 pp.

A charming story within a story.  Neave grows up devouring books in Lynn, Massachusetts, before WWII.  While her older sister Lilly is beautiful, stylish, and charming, Neave refuses to play that game.  Yet she is fascinated by romance, at least as it is portrayed in her favorite novels, particularly The Pirate Lover, a steamy and thrilling bodice ripper which is excerpted throughout the book.

In adulthood, Neave and Lilly become business partners, manufacturing and selling cosmetics.  When Lilly disappears, Neave's life begins to take on the contours of a romance heroine's, as she faces down bad guys and discovers true love.

 Sweet, funny, and extremely eccentric, I suspect this novel is not for everyone.  But I genuinely enjoyed it, and appreciated the author's unusual approach.

The Ice Age

The Ice Age: a Novel / Margaret Drabble, 295 pp.

A slow but insistent novel of Anthony and Alison, their friends and the children of their blended family, set in the backdrop of 1970s Britain during a period of economic malaise and national identity crisis.  The ills that beset the country play out in the lives of these characters: IRA activity is intensifying, and Anthony's friend is killed at a London cafe explosion; property values have plummeted and real estate speculators are going to prison, among them the couple's friend Len; Alison's daughter Jane causes a terrible car crash behind the Iron Curtain and is imprisoned indefinitely.  Dreary but not hopeless and extremely smart.  I liked this very much.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: a Novel / Hannah Tinti, 376 pp.

Loo and her father Samuel have been on the road for twelve years, the first twelve of Loo's life.  When they decide to settle in Loo's dead mother's hometown on the New England coast, Loo makes friends (and enemies) for the first time.  Why have they been on the road all these years, packing up in the middle of the night?  Why does Loo's grandma Mabel Ridge hate her father Samuel so intensely?  Does it have something to do with the eleven bullet wounds Samuel carries on his body?

As Loo's story unfolds, we learn in alternating chapters how Samuel acquired all of his holes.  The scenes of violence are colorful and suspenseful, and the novel moves along quickly to a fairly satisfying ending.  I wanted to love this novel as much as I did the author's The Good Thief , but I couldn't warm to the characters in the same way.  But my overblown expectations shouldn't keep anyone away from this skilled and smart novel.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Hobbit

The Hobbit, Or There And Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien, 288 pages

In this prequel to The Lord of the Rings, unassuming hobbit Bilbo Baggins is drafted (as a burglar, of all things!) into a dwarves' quest to defeat a dragon and reclaim the treasure of their ancestors. Along the way, they encounter trolls, goblins, wargs, elves, and, my favorite, the creepy Gollum. This was by no means the first time I've read this book, though it was my son's first experience with it. He was thrown by the "old-timey" low-dialogue style, and I was thrown by having to read the many songs aloud, but we both loved the classic tale. I don't know that I'm up for reading The Lord of the Rings to him (at least not yet), but I loved sharing this story with him.

The Hollywood Daughter

The Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott, 305 pages

Jesse Malloy grew up during the golden age of Hollywood, attempting to balance the glitz of Hollywood (her dad's a studio publicist) with the constraints of her all-girls Catholic school (her devout mother's choice) and idolizing Ingrid Bergman through it all. Most of this book is told through an extended flashback, a memory that comes to Jesse after she receives a mysterious invitation to the 1959 Academy Awards. The flashback includes several run-ins with Bergman, as well as plenty of ruminations on McCarthyism. I'm not really sure what to say about this book. It's OK, though not nearly as good as Alcott's A Touch of Stardust (which took place during the filming of Gone with the Wind). The Hollywood Daughter, while a serviceable escapist read, just doesn't have the thrill of Stardust. Kinda meh.

The True Meaning of Smekday

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, 423 pages

When the Boov aliens invade Earth, 11-year-old Gratuity (her friends call her Tip) Tucci is left on her own to track down her mom, driving a little hatchback from Pennsylvania to Florida with only her cat, Pig, for company. But when the car breaks down, a Boov named J.Lo soups up the car and joins Tip on a cross-country alien-dodging trip that takes them to Orlando's Happy Mouse Kingdom and Roswell, New Mexico, among other places. This is a fantastic, and fantastically funny, adventure, full of heart, history, and the odd juvenile joke.

What made this experience all the better was that this time around, I listened to the audiobook with my family on a road trip of our own. Read by the wonderful Bahni Turpin, Tip and J.Lo came to life in our car, and left the whole family giggling on a long drive that otherwise would have been filled with complaints. A great experience for all of us.

The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean, 391 pages

In this fascinating and wide-ranging book, Kean examines the periodic table of elements, telling the stories behind the discovery of, uses for, and odd effects of each element. While in another's hands, this would be a dry subject, Kean's bits of humor and odd anecdotes make it a lot of fun. I particularly liked the story about the high schooler who, in a misguided attempt to create clean energy, built a nuclear reactor in his backyard. Also, I loved the story of the scientist who accidentally discovered x-rays, and nearly drove himself crazy in his quest to prove himself wrong. The one complaint I have about this book is that while the stories are fascinating, I'll be damned if I can remember which elements they refer to. But really, that's a minor quibble. The book is great fun.

Deadly Sky

Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II by John C. McManus  480 pp.

This is another excellent book on World War II by Dr. McManus. This time he covers all aspects of the experiences of bomber and fighter crews in the European, African, and Pacific theaters. Every facet of this book is taken from primary sources, either interviews with the airmen, or taken from their writings, journals, and letters home. Their stories disabuse any notions created by movies and the media of flying in wartime as glamorous. The hardships most faced were real and many times horrendous. Many of the stories are heart-wrenching as crews dealt with the loss of fellow crew members and other flyers in their units. In spite of the seriousness of the topic there are the occasional amusing anecdotes as well. As always, McManus has written a readable account while still including lots of facts and information.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

You can't touch my hair

You can't touch my hair: and other things I still have to explain / Phoebe Robinson, 317 pgs.

Phoebe Robinson is a stand up comedian and actress.  She has a LOT of stuff to tell us about being a black woman beginning with the fact that you are not allowed to touch her hair.  But there are a lot of other things too.  She is honest about so many things, her love of U2 and the ranking of each band member in her own personal desirability scale, her requests and advice for the first female president and some of the experiences as a POC in "show business." Social commentary, pop culture, and personal memoir are all expertly handled by Phoebe.  I listened to the audio book which is read by the author.  Very entertaining.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness

Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness / Suzanne O'Sullivan, 291 pp.

A fascinating collection of medical case histories by a London neurologist who has spent many years working with patients with what we would broadly term psychosomatic illness.  O'Sullivan's cases are the most extreme of this type, including patients who have violent, prolonged, and disabling seizures that can't be seen on an EEG, meaning that they are not epilepsy or another organic disorder.  O'Sullivan's point is that they are real nevertheless, and that the suffering these seizures with a psychological basis cause is devastating.

I liked O'Sullivan's tone: rational and analytical but extremely compassionate.  She is honest about the anxiety she feels when attempting to explain to her patients that they need psychiatric treatment, and she is cogent about the mechanisms at work in her patients' minds and bodies.  True, her writing is not quite as elegant as Oliver Sacks', or as funny as Mary Roach's, but it is very worth reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Macbeth

Macbeth: a novel by A.J. Hartley & David Hewson  328 pp.

I admit I haven't read the original Shakespeare Macbeth since high school so I can't comment on all the differences between this book and the play. The most prominent one is the author's decision to give Lady Macbeth the first name of Skena (Scottish meaning: from Skene). Because of the novel format many things are given more detail than in the play. The relationship between Macbeth and his Lady, and her torment over the death of her infant and subsequent barrenness are elaborated upon. As a stand alone novel it works. It isn't necessary to be familiar with the play to find this version entertaining if a bit specific in the blood and gore department. However, many of the familiar quotes you expect from the play are missing e.g. no "Double double toil and trouble...". It's not a replacement for the play but a nice addendum. The Scottish actor Alan Cumming did an nice job of narration on the audiobook.

Saga, vol. 7

Saga [vol. 7] by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples, 152 pages

I feel like I say it every time I write a post on a series, but it's still true: It's impossible to say much about this volume without spoiling the entire story before it. And the reason I do this is because the series, particularly in the case of Saga, is SO GOOD that it simply needs to be read. While many series slump and falter somewhere after the first couple volumes, Saga continues to be absolutely fantastic, with plenty of complex-yet-easy-to-follow plot lines, a just-right touch of philosophical musings, and three-dimensional characters. And then there's Staples' BEAUTIFUL artwork. Her imagination is simply astounding, though definitely not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Volume 7 continues that excellent story, and packs a couple of emotional wallops that I won't touch on here; I'll just say that they're handled excellently.

The Wrong Dead Guy

The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey, 420 pages

In this follow-up to last year's hilarious fantasy heist novel The Everything Box, magic-proof burglar Coop is back at it, this time working for The Man as a part-time agent of the Department of Peculiar Science. He's initially tasked with stealing a mummy, but when that goes sideways (the mummy wakes up, placing a curse on Coop and wreaking havoc across L.A.), Coop is suddenly on the hunt for all kinds of mystical objects that may or may not help solve the problem. Throw in a stoned fortune teller, a gun-toting used car salesman, a group of self-righteous bunny-hugging rich kids, and an undead former DOPS agent with a vendetta against Coop (oh, and an elephant), and you have a rollicking tale reminiscent of Dave Barry's riotously funny novel Big Trouble, but with, you know, magic and stuff. That said, it's a bit of a sophomore slump after The Everything Box, which had better heists and a somewhat more coherent plot. Here's hoping that if Kadrey continues the series, he steps it back up in the next book.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The books of the Raksura trilogy


Image result for cloud roads martha wells  

The books of the Raksura trilogy by Martha Wells


The cloud roads, 278 p. 

The serpent sea, 340 p.
The siren depths, 277 p.

Moon lives among groundlings on the Three Worlds, drifting from group to group, never able to quite fit in among the many different races. His family group was killed when he was very young, and he's never found another being who's like him: a shapeshifter. Moon's winged form bears an unfortunate resemblance to a vicious enemy known as the Fell, so he has to stay in groundling form as much as possible. Finally he meets another member of his race, and discovers that he's a Raksura. However, learning to fit in with a Raksura court is even more difficult than his life has been so far.

Martha Wells is enormously talented at worldbuilding without infodumping, and this setting is a rich and marvelous secondary world. Plus she's really, really excellent at showing culture clash--in this case, not just between the Raksura and other races, but between Moon and other Raksura, since his upbringing was so different from theirs. One scene in particular The Serpent Sea where she illustrates Moon's incomprehension of something that all of the other Raksura just assumed he knew is a gutpunch, and so, so well done. Martha Wells remains one of my all-time favorite writers.

Plus, sullen, grumpy Moon is a lot of fun to read about. The fifth book, The Harbors of the Sun, comes out in early July, and I can't wait to read it and The Edge of Worlds (the fourth book).

Chasing the Moon

Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez  310 pp.

This is just a typical story of a woman with a monster in her closet. Diana needs a place to live and she finds a place that's too good to be true. . . sort of. She is told by the strange landlord not to open the closet. When something in the closet begins speaking she opens it to find Vom the Hungering who eats everything in his path. Diana soon learns to control Vom and a couple other monsters she picks up on the way while gaining her own strange powers. The apartment building straddles two dimensions and is a haven of monsters. But one is intent on destroying the world and Diana must find a way to stop him. Essentially this is humorous, apocalyptic fiction with monsters. I like Martinez's books but, while amusing, this is not his best.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Get well soon

Get well soon: history's worst plagues and the heroes who fought them / Jennifer Wright, 322 pgs.

Read by Gabra Zackman

I read some of the reviews of this book and several describe it as "lighthearted."  On the one hand, I see where they are coming from because the author makes some unexpected comments and some can certainly be seen as funny...but just how hilarious can it be when you are talking about millions of people suffering and dying from horrible medical conditions?  Each chapter in this book takes a look at a specific plague and how it was spread, how it was dealt with and the horrible repercussions of the aftermath on the population and history in general. The premise is simple, a horrible plague develops, there is some background on how it spread, how it was treated, how the society responded to it and who stepped up to help.  It is interested to see the same themes over and over.  Effective leadership in the times of plague do well to clear the bodies and figure out how to treat the ill.  Reading along, you realize that some ancient plagues may have been handled better than modern ones.  Maybe that reality won't sit well with everyone.

I listened to the audiobook and it was great.  Gabra Zackman does a wonderful job of making you want to continue listening.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Our lady of birth control

Our lady of birth control: a cartoonist's encounter with Margaret Sanger / Sabrina Jones, 158 pgs.

Sanger was an early pioneer who advocated birth control (she actually coined the term) and the idea that a woman should have control over when she had children as a way to better care for the children she DID have.  At the time, (early 1900's), there was a decided lack of education about reproduction, sexuality and the methods known in other parts of the world about preventing pregnancy.  Sanger dropped out of nurses training to get married but then worked as a visiting nurse in the slums of New York. She and her husband became involved with leftist political movements and became activists.  Over the years, she convinced many lovers and others to help in her movement and coined the term "birth control."  This book also touches on the activities of the author during the anti-feminist backlash in the Reagan era.  The two stories are similar enough to make you wonder exactly how much progress has been made.  Perhaps current events make this even more timely.

Can't. Just. Stop.

Can't. Just. Stop.: An Investigation of Compulsions by Sharon Begley, 296 pages

In this intriguing and well-researched book, Begley looks into the nature of compulsions, spanning from the "textbook" cases of OCD and hoarding to compulsively checking smartphones or social media. It's a fascinating book, and Begley does an excellent job of explaining the science and psychology history in an easily understandable way, often tinged with a bit of humor.

What really stands out, however, is Begley's ability to present examples of people suffering from different compulsions (from hoarding to OCD to shoplifting to hair-pulling) with grace, respect, and dignity. A less talented writer could easily have slipped into the sort of sensationalism that is found on too many cable reality shows. But here? No gawking, no sensationalism, just kindness. Because of that, I walked away from the book feeling comfortable with my own compulsions, and with a lot more empathy for those that experience more severe compulsions. An excellent book.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Born to run

Born to run / Bruce Springteen, 512 pgs.

Sprintsteen is a rock icon and this book, a hefty 500+ pages keeps reminding you of that over and over.  Actually I do like Bruce and the stories he tells of his young and foolish days are sometimes awesome in their stupidity and hubris.  As time goes on, you will recognize many of the events and times.  What you may not know is about his struggle with depression, a topic that he candidly discusses.  There are many wonderful passages in this book but somehow I don't feel like the true Bruce is revealed.  I don't quite know why this book didn't add up to me.  I could only recommend to the most ardent fan. I started with the audio version which Springsteen reads but he reads WAY TOO SLOW for me.  I had to switch over to the actual book.

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges  736 pp.

This biography of Alan Turing, the British scientist and mathematician who helped crack the Nazi enigma codes, was the basis for the film "The Imitation Game" starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Alan Turing also developed what we now know as computer science and with the invention of the "Turing Machine", a mathematical computation machine began the "computer age". During World War II Turing and a host of others working in the once secret Bletchley Park where the British set up their code breaking efforts. The work of Turing and others there shortened the duration of the war and very possibly made the Allied defeat of Germany possible. During wartime Turing's homosexuality was ignored by the authorities who needed his expertise. With the advent of the cold war government attitudes changed and homosexuality was looked upon as a security risk. Turing was arrested in 1952 and agreed to undergo chemical castration in lieu of prison time. At that time he also lost his government security clearance. Turing committed suicide in 1954. Hodges book contains very detailed descriptions of Turing's work from childhood on and is interesting, if occasionally heavy on the mathematics. Unfortunately, Hodges goes on to posthumously psychoanalyze Turing in the last chapters, much of which is speculation on the author's part. Those chapters could have been deleted and the book would have been much better.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Talking Back, Talking Black : Truths about America's Lingua Franca

Talking Back, Talking Black : Truths about America's Lingua Franca / John McWhorter, 190 pp.

McWhorter, a linguist, would like us all to feel more comfortable talking about Black English.  But he wants to make sure we understand just what Black English is (a systematic and complex dialect) and what it isn't (standard English with mistakes).  He explains tricky grammatical and linguistic concepts with humor and energy, making this a fun and informative read.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Girl waits with gun

Girl waits with gun / Amy Stewart, 408 pgs.

It is 1914 and three sisters are living together on a farm in New Jersey after the death of their mother.  The Kopp sisters are doing just fine, thank you very much until they are in an accident with a local factory owner and thug, Henry Kaufman.  They try to collect damages from Kaufman but that puts them in his path to be harassed by him.  They end up with bricks through their windows and threatening letters.  Although concerned about this violence, they are not going to be run off their property.  They consult the sheriff and learn to shoot.  They are going to protect themselves and their property.  They also get involved with another woman who is being harassed by Kaufman.  Constance, the oldest sister, is the narrator here and she is an impressive woman, tall, confident and not about to be bullied.  The best part of the story is that it is based on a true story and real people.  Stewart does a great job filling in details, creating dialog and interesting personalities.  Overall, a very fun book to read.