Friday, May 26, 2017

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper  305 pp.

Eighty-three year old Etta leaves a note for her husband, takes some chocolate, a shotgun, and her best boots to set off on a 3000 mile walk from their farm in Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean because she's never seen it. In her note she says she will "try to remember to come back". Otto, the husband, takes this matter-of-factly and sets about learning to cook for himself. Their friend Russell is upset at Etta's disappearance and sets out to find her. Along the way Etta meets James, a talking coyote who travels with her and may or may not be real. There are flashbacks to the human characters' childhoods and young adult days, the years of World War II, and Etta and Otto's marriage. Much of the story leaves you wondering what is real and what is in the heads of the characters. The ending is bewildering and intriguing, leaving it up to the interpretation of the reader. I'm still not sure about this one.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

This is just my face

This is just my face: try not to stare / Gabourey Sidibe, 246 pgs.

Ms Sidibe is so funny and such a great writer, someone should put her in movies...wait, they already have.  Ok, put her on TV...too late for that too.  How about let her direct something...ok, my real hope is that she will record an audio version of her memoir.  I think it would be amazing to hear it in her own voice because the book is so fabulous.  If you have not seen her in anything yet, make it a priority.  This book just confirms that I've got good taste.

The diving pool

The diving pool: three novellas / Yoko Ogawa, 164 pgs.

Three novellas that are each a bit bizarre which makes them memorable.  The first is The diving pool which tells of a one-sided obsession of a girl towards her foster brother.  She has a few issues of her own but is the one biological child of her parents who run a large foster home.  She obviously feels some neglect but is also counting on her actions not being noticed.  Over time, she realizes Han, the focus of her obsession seems to know of all of her slightly evil deeds.

Next is Pregnancy Diary which is the diary of the sister of a pregnant woman.  She recounts all the odd behavior of her sister and then sort of reveals that it isn't really the pregnancy that is to blame for much of it, her sister is just pretty odd.

Finally Dormitory takes a woman back to the place she lived in college and the manager of the dormitory.  An out of town cousin is coming to go to school and is too late for regular housing so she gets him into the private dorm where she used to live.  She becomes obsessed with the manager, a man she had few dealings with as a student, and returns each day to care for him. A strangely moving tale.

Japanese literature with more than a passing resemblance to Murikami.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Einstein's Cosmos

Einstein's Cosmos: How Einstein's Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time by Michio Kaku  251 pp.

This book is a brief history of Albert Einstein's career and his achievements in the world of physics and the impact his theories on scientific discovery in the year's since. Many people believe that Einstein wasted the last twenty-five years of his life in the search for a Grand Unification Theory and that he was against the theories of quantum physics. Kaku uses the discovery of some later Einstein papers to show how his work after the Theory of Relativity and the Special Theory of Relativity was geared to finding a way to connect those theories to quantum theory. Kaku also explains how without the work of Einstein, none of the current work of CERN and other scientists would even be possible. Kaku, also a theoretical physicist, is able to explain the theories and physics research in a way that is understandable to the lay person.  

Saints for All Occasions

Saints for All Occasions / J. Courtney Sullivan, 335 pp.

The story of two young sisters, Nora and Theresa, who leave Ireland in the 1950s and head to Boston.  Their paths diverge quickly when one of them becomes pregnant by a married man.  The consequences of their rift play out over generations, and a kind of resolution comes only years later at the funeral of Patrick, one sister's son.

Sullivan writes using straightforward, plain language, which gives an emotionally-charged tale nice balance.  The excellent sense of time, place and people here would lead me to pick up another Sullivan novel.   My only objection to Saints was a later chapter or two detailing the travails of Catholic women religious in the U.S.,  a cause with which I am wholly sympathetic; but the inclusion felt forced and was unnecessary to the plot.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson  544 pp.

Bill Bryson takes on science in this book that covers a bit of everything from the big bang to biochemistry. Obviously it's not an exhaustive and detailed overview but it hits upon salient points on the evolution of theories about life, the universe, and everything (with apologies to the late Douglas Adams). I listened to the audio book version and found it lacking. Bryson is known for including humor, frequently of the dry sort, in his writing. The narrator of this book, Richard Matthews, besides being distinctly British reads much of the book in the same tone throughout. You have to listen very carefully to catch Bryson's humorous conjectures among the facts especially in the first half of the book. I don't know if the narrator became more comfortable with the work as he went along or I just got used to his way of reading. But it seems to me he loosened up a bit as the book went on.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, 327 pages

As soon as I saw the title of this book, I thought, "Oh, she is SO not fine." Because really, who says they're completely fine and isn't lying? And sure enough, Eleanor Oliphant is not fine. Oh, she thinks she is — at the beginning of this book, Miss Oliphant (I suspect that she would insist upon being referred to in this manner) is chugging along through life, working in an office, eating pasta at home every night, and spending her weekends drinking vodka. Alone. But a chance encounter with Raymond, the new IT guy at work, spins Miss Oliphant's carefully measured life into a tailspin.

This is Honeyman's debut novel, and wow, it is fantastic. It doesn't have a huge plot — most of the events are the sorts of things that happen every day, like visiting someone in the hospital or going out to lunch with a coworker — but that's good, as it gives Miss Oliphant's emotional struggle the space it needs to fully play out. I also really liked seeing friendship develop between Raymond and Miss Oliphant; Raymond is the friend ALL of us need, and I loved seeing Miss Oliphant come to that realization. A phenomenal debut. I look forward to seeing what the author has in store in the future.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Such a lovely little war: Saigon 1961-63

Such a lovely little war: Saigon 1961-63 / Marcelino Truong, 273 pgs.

The author was a very young boy early in the Vietnam War.  His father was a diplomat and his mother, a French national.  They lived in Saigon as things were heating up.  Nobody thought the war would affect the city but as time went on, things got dicier.  The author's mother suffered from extreme stress and developed bi-polar disorder due to the difficulty coping.  This memoir uses letters written by the author's mother, historical facts  as well as the perspective of a young boy.  The illustrations are great and the story shows a different perspective on the war and its effect on the family.

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir / Jennifer Ryan, 371 pgs. Read by a full cast

Revealed through letters and journal entries, this book tells us about a five month period during World War II when the Nazi's were bombing England.  The village of Chilbury is the central setting proving that it is NOT a sleepy little hamlet.  There is action everywhere!  Young men are leaving for service, women are off to work and there is all kinds of romance and heartbreak. The characters are not all admirable but they are all interesting.  The audiobook is read by a full cast and they do a wonderful job.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Republic of Spin

Republic of spin: an inside history of the American presidency / David Greenberg, 557 pgs.

An interesting history of the the American presidency and the efforts of presidents to communicate with the public. Starting with FDR and ending with Obama, the book details the professional efforts of PR and media consultants that have aided every president to make their case to the public. I liked learning how the various presidents tried to deny that they hired and depended on people to help them look better, sound better, and be more persuasive. Not an easy read but a reminder about how the technology has changed but not the intent.

The hungry brain

The hungry brain: outsmarting the instincts that make us overeat / Stephan J. Guyenet, 291 pgs.

Why are so many of us eating too much?  What is the reason behind our seeming inability to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle?  There actually ARE reasons and science behind them.  This book delves into the many factors working against us.  It is interesting how many things there are to factor into this equation.  The world is a different place, food is different and for many, change is difficult because our brains are working against us.  This book gives a summary of lots of these factors and also a plan to help make changes.  Interesting reading.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, 341 pages

Just after his 11-year-old son Willie died, Abraham Lincoln spent a night visiting the cemetery where the boy was buried. Whether or not this really happened is unclear, but in Lincoln in the Bardo, it did, and the president's visit stirred excitement among the spirits still hanging around the cemetery. Narrated by the many "residents" of the cemetery, Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of that one night, and delves into the former lives of the spirits, including the entirely fictional printer Hans Vollman, closeted gay man Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas, whose voices account for the bulk of the narration.

I focus on the narration here because I listened to the audiobook, which is a full-cast recording featuring an astonishing 166 separate narrators. With so many voices, it's hard to keep track of who is who, but a few voices stand out. Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and George Saunders voice Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend, respectively, and are perfectly cast in those roles. Also perfect? Megan Mullaly and Bill Hader as a foul-mouthed low-class (and hilarious) couple that were buried just outside the official cemetery in the mass grave reserved for slaves. Keegan-Michael Key and Don Cheadle excellently bring two of those slaves to life (or afterlife?), with ruminations on slavery and the Civil War, which was just a year old at the time this book was set.

Listening to this audiobook was quite the experience, and I'd recommend it, though perhaps not without a look through the physical book first, which would likely have helped abate the disorienting feeling of so many voices taking on the book's structure.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Last Sultan

The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenburg  431 pp.

As books about the recording industry go, this one is just okay and a bit of a slog. Ahmet Ertegun was raised in luxury as the son of a Turkish Ambassador to various countries including the U.S. Ahmet and his brother, Nesuhi, became fans of jazz while in their teens. Soon the two young men became experts in the field and owners of a tremendous collection of jazz records. Eventually they both went into the record business in order to support and promote the talented African-American musicians who were being ignored by agents, promoters, and record manufacturers. Eventually Neshuhi set out on his own with a small record label but later rejoined with his brother after  Ahmet created Atlantic Records with co-founder Herb Abramson. Atlantic became a giant in the industry eventually signing many big names in jazz, blues, and rock including Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Ruth Brown, LaVern BakerBobby Darin, Ray Charles, and later, The Rolling Stones,  Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and many more. This book details shady deals, and double crosses, Ertegun's love-hate relationships with both industry collaborators and competitors, and Ertegun's wild life of partying. While he's not a man to be admired for his personal life, his contribution to the music industry cannot be understated.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry

My grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry / Fredrik Backman, 372 pgs.

Elsa is almost eight years old and has no friends her own age. She does, however, have a devoted granny who appreciates everything about her. The two are delightfully eccentric and drive everyone in their apartment building crazy with their antics. The building is full of interesting characters, all of whom Elsa has known her whole life. When her Granny dies, Elsa finds out that she is missing a few details about all those around her. She is tasked with an adventure to find and deliver final letters to everyone. It is a great learning experience and adventure for her. She discovers that the long fairy tale she has heard is based on people in her real life. Elsa and the cast of oddball characters are charming and this book is fun to read.

The Best of Adam Sharp

The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion, 314 pages

Twenty-two years ago, British IT worker Adam Sharp took a contract gig in Melbourne, Australia. While he was there, Adam took up a part-time gig playing the piano at a bar, and fell in love with Angelina, a gorgeous actress who was trapped in a horrible marriage. Years later, after complete silence between the ex-lovers, Angelina contacts Adam again, disrupting his stale relationship with live-in girlfriend Claire and sending him on a nostalgia-filled trip, both mentally and physically.

This is Simsion's third book, after the absolutely fantastic The Rosie Project, and its somewhat meh sequel, The Rosie Effect. This one, I think, is a lot closer to his debut, quality-of-writing-wise, though I'm coming to the conclusion that nothing's going to measure up to Simsion's initial release. The premise here is more than a little unbelievable — it's definitely the fantasy of a middle-aged IT guy spelled out on the page — though Adam's personal growth throughout said fantasy is admirable.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Imagine Wanting Only This

Imagine Wanting Only This / Kristen Radtke, 277 p.

A graphic novel tracing the contours of the author's obsession with death, decay, and impermanence.  The core event is the sudden death of her beloved uncle while she was at art school.  She works her grief into projects exploring abandoned buildings in Gary, Indiana, and interviewing former residents of a Colorado ghost mining town, among many other ventures. Thematically a bit messy, but as a work that straddles autobiography, philosophy, and psychology, that is allowed.  The art is subdued but effective.  Graceful and interesting.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Stolen Beauty

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, 302 pages.

The parallel stories in this novel follow Adele Bloch-Bauer and Maria Altmann, two actual Austrian women, aunt and niece, through their lives, especially exploring their strength as women, and how their lives were intertwined with the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Adele, who lived in Vienna from 1862-1925, sat for two portraits by Klimt, and was the model for his portrait of the Biblical heroine Judith. Lico Albanese portrays Bloch-Bauer as an exceedingly gifted woman who struggles to maintain her ideals, identity, and passion during a time when all three of these could be taken from a woman. Her niece, Altmann, as a Jew in post-Anschuluss Vienna struggles with a much more concrete set of threats. She must keep her wits about her as she attempts to win her husband's release from Dachau and find a way for them both to get out of Austria.

Organ Grinder: A Classical Education Gone Astray

Organ Grinder: A Classical Education Gone Astray by Alan Fishbone, 100 pages.

I think this book was written with a younger reader in mind, maybe for someone who hasn't encountered Hunter Thompson, Robert Pirsig, or even Sonny Barger. It is interesting in parts, there are stories of the author's feelings about the classics (the back cover tells us that he has a Masters in Philosophy in Classics from Colombia), about his adventures in Venezuela, his adventures and misadventures on motorcycles, and his adventures with a couple of women. He doesn't delve too deeply into studying the classics, or really much beyond some quotations and some exploration of the relative merits of Plato and Diogenes. It's 100 pages long, it's kind of narcissistic, but the style is engaging and it moves along quickly.

Friday, May 12, 2017

American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman  541 pp.

After watching the first episode of the "American Gods" television series, I realized I needed to re-read this book. My first reading was sometime in the early 2000s (it was published in 2001) and there was much I had forgotten. The story of paroled convict Shadow Moon, the ghost of his dead wife, Mr. Wednesday, Mr. Nancy, and a host of others focuses on an approaching war between the old gods that were brought to this country by immigrants and the new gods that were created here. Mr. Wednesday (Wotan/Odin) hires Shadow to help him round up the old gods to assist him in fighting the new gods of media, technology, electronics, etc. There were many details I had forgotten from reading it so long ago. And I still wish Mr. Jacquel (Anubis) and Mr. Ibis (Thoth) were in more of the story. I listened to the George Guidall read audio book but the apparently the full cast version contains parts that Gaiman originally edited out so I may have to listen to that one day. It has a solid place in my list of all time favorite books.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid



In Hamid’s 2007 breakout novel, The reluctant fundamentalist, the events of 9/11 were still fresh in everyone’s mind.  The threat of radical Islamists attacking felt imminent.  Ten years later, in Exit West, he again has his finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, the dissolution of failed states and the rush of immigrants from those areas westward – be it to Europe, England or America.  The novel is set in an unnamed country which is slipping into disorder.  As the novel opens, life is still going on more or less normally for Saeed and Nadia, who met at an evening class on “corporate identity and branding.”  Saeed is bearded, but not in the strict fundamentalist manner, and Nadia wears a flowing black robe that covers her from neck to feet.  Shyly gathering the courage to ask her out, he is startled to learn that she rides a small motorcycle and wears the robe not as a sign of devotion but as a protection from unwanted male gazes.  She is, in fact, the bold one and irreligious.  In defiance of her family, from whom she is estranged,  she lives alone in a rented room passing herself off as a widow.  As they become a couple, their city begins to descend into the chaos of civil conflict.  Saeed’s mother is killed. Ultimately an escape to the west seems the only way forward.  Paying for a guide, they are led to one of the “doors” (a touch of magical realism that works well) that will deposit them into another country, first the Greek island of Mykonos, later to England, and ultimately Marin County, California.  In each place, they and the other immigrants meet with the resistance from “natives” that will be familiar to today’s readers.  Never marrying, Saeed and Nadia will ultimately drift apart and find other partners.  I was taken by the rather hopeful note in the last few pages, set fifty years in the future in the city they left behind.  Essential reading for today.  231 pp.

Public Library and other stories, by Ali Smith



The dozen wonderful stories in this book are interspersed with paeans to public libraries.  Smith, born in Scotland, lives in England and says that public libraries in the UK are threatened by the same forces that threaten libraries here in this country (particularly under the current administration which wants to defund IMLS).  Like those of you likely to be reading this blog entry, she believes passionately in the value of public libraries, ‘This happens to be a book that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading, their vital importance when it comes to our individual lives and  our shared histories – personal, cultural, social, local and international.  It celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.”  Books, poems, writers, language, the etymology of words, all find a place in these stories, which are wildly inventive and thoughtful.  The human claim mixes a fraudulent charge for a ticket on Lufthansa Airlines on a woman’s credit card with the life of D. H. Lawrence and the fate of the writer’s ashes.  And it works beautifully.  Highly recommended and I look forward to reading her earlier novels.  220 pp.