Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Born a crime, by Trevor Noah

Apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa when television host and comedian, Trevor Noah, was born to his Xhosa mother and white Swiss/German father.  Not only were they not married (nor did they intend to be – his mother simply needed someone to father the child she desperately wanted), but it was literally against the law for a white person to have intercourse with a black person.  The visible proof of that illegality, his existence was a crime.  Technically, under the law, Trevor was “colored,” but fit in nowhere.  Kept inside for much of his early childhood, to avoid detection, he was a solitary child who made his own world.  After apartheid fell, life was different, but, although he now identifies as “black,” he still never felt entirely in one world or the other.  This memoir of his growing up is primarily about his indomitable mother and their close but difficult relationship.  Funny, sad, and alarming in places, it helps explain the unique perspective that has informed his vision.  He’s one of the most perceptive observers of life in the USA.

The White Mirror: a Mystery

The White Mirror: a Mystery / Elsa Hart, 310 pp.

The 2nd in a new mystery series (Jade Dragon Mountain comes first) authored by a Wash U law school grad.   Set in the mountain passes between 18th century China and Tibet and featuring Li Du, mountain traveler and former librarian to the Emperor in Beijing, I hope this series enjoys a long life.  Li Du and his caravan, en route to Lhasa, become trapped in a snowy pass. As they descend to the welcoming lights of a manor house, they discover the corpse of a monk, mutilated and marked with symbolic painting.  Other travelers, also impeded by the storm, have already sought shelter at the manor, creating a nicely claustrophobic closed box mystery, a la Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

The plot is thoughtful and workmanlike, with a satisfying conclusion; even better was the wonderful sense of time and place: mountain geography, tensions between Imperial China and Tibet, and the bewildering, fascinating workings of religious tradition, complete with lamas, sacred artwork, visions and magic.  Thanks to Luise for the recommendation!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel, 203 pages

For nearly 30 years, the year-round and vacation residents of North Pond, Maine, were the victims of regular burglaries of everything from car batteries and propane tanks to books and boxes of macaroni and cheese. In 2013, after more than 1,000 separate burglaries, the culprit was caught: Christopher Knight, a man who had been living without human contact in the thick woods near their homes for 27 years.

Finkel's biography of the hermit is based on a series of hour-long interviews the journalist conducted during visits to Knight as he was awaiting trial after his capture, supplemented by Knight's sparse letters to Finkel and Finkel's research into hermits in general. The result of all these letters and interviews and research is a rough portrait of a man who willingly withdrew himself from people, though he didn't entirely leave civilization behind — he did steal books and the odd TV and radio, after all, on top of all that food. It's a fascinating account, and Finkel does an excellent job of telling Knight's story. I wonder if Knight — an voracious reader with a wonderful dry sense of humor — has read it, and what he thought of it, though I'm sure we'll never know.


Bettyville by George Hodgman  288 pp.

This is a touching memoir by a son who returns home from a life in New York City to care for his aging mother in the small town of Paris, Missouri. Betty is frequently cantankerous and confused and George is out of his element in navigating what is needed to keep her happy and cared for. The author reminisces on his life growing up as a gay man who could never discuss his homosexuality with his parents. He also describes his fall into drug addiction with honesty but without gory details. What Hodgman does best is present the frustration of caring for an aged family member while walking that fine line between loving them and wanting to strangle them. He includes lots of memories about northeast Missouri and St. Louis.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Meaty: essays / Samantha Irby, 253 pgs.

An absolutely profane, hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking collection of essays.  Irby's new book has a kitten on the cover so of course I decided I should read it.  There was such a wait list, I looked to see if there were any other books by her and that is how I ended up with "Meaty" and I am so glad that I did!  This book makes so many great points about relationships, sex, and life realities in a way that might be offensive to your average delicate flower.  Luckily, I'm one who can handle a meaty essay with aplomb.  Looking forward to reading that next one with the kitten cover.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Leavers

The leavers / Lisa Ko, 338 pgs. Read by Emily Woo Zeller

Eleven year old Deming Guo is living in New York City with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's sister, Vivian and the sister's child, Michael.  Michael is like a brother to him.  One day, his mother goes to work and never comes home.  No one seems to know what happened to her.  After several months, Deming ends up in foster care and is eventually adopted by a couple of college professors in upstate New York.  Deming becomes Daniel.  After years of feeling like he doesn't fit in, he gets some information that may lead him back to his mother.  I enjoyed the book, Deming/Daniel is trying hard to figure out who he is...so are many other characters in the book.  The audio lagged for me at times but overall it was well read by the narrator.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories / Penelope Lively, 197 pp.

I love Penelope Lively; I haven't read all of her books yet and don't plan to immediately.  It's like keeping chocolate in the freezer - I'm comforted to know they are still there, waiting for me to enjoy.  But this newest, a short story collection, I couldn't resist, and if these were less intense than previous material, that is still perfectly fine.

I liked "Lorna and Tom," a downright spooky story, and "The Third Wife," which is both chilling and comical.  Bad marriages, dysfunctional relationships, humor and decency.  Good stuff as always.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Britt-Marie was Here

Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman  324 pp.

At the end of the novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, Britt-Marie walks out on her unfaithful husband. This book begins with the socially awkward and obsessive compulsive Britt-Marie trying to find a job. She has not worked outside the home since she married and her only skills are obsessively cleaning everything. The employment counselor finds Britt-Marie a temporary job running the community center in a small and nearly dead small town. Soon she is absorbed into the life of the town and finds herself becoming attached to the unusual characters that inhabit it, especially the children. When her errant husband comes to town in an effort to convince her to come home she is forced to decide between her old and new lives. I enjoyed this book more than Backman's previous novels A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me  . . . .

Anything is Possible

Anything Is Possible / Elizabeth Strout, 254 pp.

Continues the story of Lucy and her childhood neighbors from My Name is Lucy Barton in a series of loosely connected stories that wind forward in time.  Similar in structure and tone to Olive Kitteridge, this work is somewhere between a novel and a short story collection. Set in the fictional small town of Amgash, Illinois, these are stories of people with small lives - the proprietor of a bed and breakfast who stews over her guests' disrespect, a successful businessman worried about his adult daughter - that nevertheless seem to fill the imagination completely.  Strout's work demonstrates again that the most ordinary people are fascinating, if one only knows how to tell their stories.  A gorgeous book.

On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century / Timothy Snyder, 126 pp.

Here's what happened.  On a Wednesday in November 2016, Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and author of the fantastic Black Earth, had a bad day.  In this he was not alone.

In the aftermath of this very bad day, Snyder took his acute historical acumen, much of which has been trained on totalitarian regimes from the 20th century, and came up with a list of recommendations for those of us who might be feeling a little worried about the current state of affairs:

Do not obey in advance.
Defend institutions. (like courts)
Beware the one-party state.
Take responsibility for the face of the world. (the physical and virtual presence of propaganda)
 & etc.

Although it feels like it was written in haste, it's still powerful, and it certainly makes sense.  I just wish it had made me feel better.

Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays

Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays / Mary Gaitskill, 272 pp.

An unusual collection by the author of The Mare, this includes music, movie and book reviews.  A mixed bag, at least for me (I don't really 'get' music reviews and never read them...), but there were several standouts:

  • "The Trouble with Following the Rules: on "Date Rape," "Victim Culture," and Personal Responsibility" -  quietly thought provoking and discomfiting
  • "And It Would Not Be Wonderful to Meet a Megalosaurus: on Bleak House by Charles Dickens" - cuz, ya know, Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • "She's Supposed to Make You Sick: a Review of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn" - an astute review, and she feels the same way I do about Gone Girl

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: a Novel

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: a Novel / Gail Honeyman, 327 pp.

Thanks so much to Kara for reviewing this; her praise was well deserved.  Novels told from the point of view of characters who may or may not be 'on the spectrum' are trendy; Honeyman has taken the concept and worked it into something surprisingly fresh.  Eleanor's voice is funny but believable, and Honeyman never takes the quirks to extremes.  And yes, as Kara points out, any astute fiction reader can guess that completely fine means its opposite. (And who would read a novel about someone who was completely fine, anyway?)

Eleanor's progress from 'not fine' to 'on the mend' involves Raymond, the new IT guy at her office, and Sammy, an elderly man they meet while waiting for the bus.  While aspects of the plot are not totally original, Eleanor's voice certainly is, and the psychology feels true.  Recommended.

Meeting with My Brother: a Novella

Meeting with My Brother: a Novella / Yi Mun-Yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, 92 pp.

A cool, spare story of a middle-aged South Korean professor meeting his North Korean half-brother for the first time in a Chinese border town packed with tourists.  Little action but lots to think about, this story lets the reader glimpse the deep strangeness of the Korean divide.  Atmospheric in a minimalist kind of way.  I enjoyed this; try it if you like fiction that takes you someplace new.

Born Bright: a Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America

Born Bright: a Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America / C. Nicole Mason, 242 pp.

Along with Dickens' David Copperfield, this is our Big Book Challenge 2017 read!  Read our blog throughout the summer to see what we and other in the community have to say about these books.

The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism / Doris Kearns Goodwin, 910 pp.

A deep, satisfying overview of a period of US history I knew little about, focusing most closely on the period between McKinley's assassination in 1901 which put then-VP Roosevelt in the White House, to the presidential election of 1912, which saw the defeat of both Republican President Taft and Bull Moose (Progressive) Party candidate Roosevelt to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Most striking is DKG's way of putting together biographical detail to create vivid, three-dimensional humans, flawed but deeply sympathetic.  Having grown up in the Cincinnati area, I was happy to learn that Taft, one of that city's most famous sons and its only president, was a heckuva nice guy.

The 37-hour audiobook was read by Edward Herrmann, whose voice was perfectly suited to the material.


Hostage / Guy Delisle, 432 pages

Kidnapped while working for an NGO, Christophe Andre was held for several months in 1997 before he escaped.  He was almost always handcuffed to a radiator or some other unmovable object, given time to eat (mostly watery soup) and infrequent bathroom breaks.  He was unaware of efforts to negotiate his freedom and felt, pretty much the entire time, that he could not take captivity much longer.  Worse than being in prison, he had no idea when or if he would be freed.  He never really communicated much with his captors as there was a language barrier and he was loath to become friendly with them.  This book does a great job conveying the boredom, fear and hopelessness of the hostage.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The marriage of opposites, by Alice Hoffman

The writing in Hoffman’s novel actually made me want to visit the Caribbean for the first time in my life, but a quick search on Google of St. Thomas dissuaded me.  Not surprisingly, things have changed somewhat since the early 1800s.  The Impressionist artist Camille Pissaro (nee Pizzaro) was born there to parents of Portuguese-Jewish descent and of French nationality – St. Thomas was at that time held by Denmark. Camille (known by his first name, Jacobo, on St. Thomas) was the last of his mother Rachel ’s children – she had older stepchildren and her own children with her first husband (an arranged marriage), and several more with her second, a love match whose forbidden nature drives much of the action in this historical novel.  For the main character in the book is really Rachel, a brilliant, dreamy, willful child indulged and educated by her father and resented by her mother.  She grows up with her closest friend Jestine, daughter of her mother’s African maid, Adelle.  Jestine is of mixed race, her father unknown.  Rachel dreams of Paris, which she visits through her father’s books, and her son Camille will inherit both her dissatisfaction with convention and her longing to leave the island for Europe.  There are several subplots, some real, some imagined, woven together in this small close-knit community, but the real joy is in the writing.  Hoffman’s descriptions of the differing beauties of the tropical island and the ancient city of Paris are painterly as befits the subject of the book.  Unexpectedly lovely.  365 pp.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Into the water

Into the water / Paula Hawkins, 388 pgs.

Hawkins burst onto the scene with "The girl on the train," arguably the most checked out book of 2015 that resulted in a couple of feature films.  This book is good but very different.  A mother kills herself at the local "drowning pool," a famous site of many witch trials, suicides and murders through the ages.  She leaves a teenage daughter who is struggling after her best friend also committed suicide.  Lena knows more than she lets on but then so do many other characters in this book.  Speaking of characters, there are a lot of them.  Hawkins shines a light on each of them and makes you doubt their story.  For some reason, this book just doesn't pack the punch of the first one.  Most of these characters are not very likable and I felt like "The girl on the train" gave a good name to black-out drunks.  I certainly would not discourage reading but be aware the two books are very dissimilar.

We should all be feminists

We should all be feminists / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 52 pgs.

Slender yet powerful, Adichie is playful, funny and yet serious in the essay that gives a little background on her realization of what feminism is and how it should be.  When first accused of being a feminist, she was not familiar with the word, now she is writing wonderful reasoned essays that are a call to action for all.  This book is based on a TED talk by the author. Take the time to acquaint yourself with the book or the video.

The other side of impossible

The other side of impossible: Ordinary people who faced daunting medical challenges and refused to give up / Susannah Meadows, 302 pgs.

If your child had a serious medical condition that resulted in a serious restriction on their quality of life, and traditional medical care did not make significant progress towards restoring that quality, what would you do?  What if the person dealing with the illness was you?  Meadows first tells her own story, her son suffering from juvenile idiopathic arthritis is often in so much pain, he can not participate in any activities.  She decides to look beyond the medications offered and delves into ideas that lack well researched results.  Nevertheless, some things help.  She continues searching for help.  This book in no way rejects traditional medicine but encourages building on it with methods who have worked for some and might work for you.  Each chapter tells an amazing story of someone who won't give up for their child, or themselves when dealt the blow of serious illness.  A very impressive book.