Saturday, July 22, 2017

The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao

The brief wonderous life of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz, read by Lin-Manuel Miranda & Karen Olivo, 339 pgs.

A family story that tells of Oscar, his mother, his grandparents.  Is there a curse on the family?  Everyone has issues but no one more than Oscar.  After a childhood of being cute, he turns into an overweight nerd who has no chance with the ladies.  He is miserable and suicidal.  Is there hope for Oscar?  The narrator is Oscar's former college roommate and his sister's on again, off again lover.  He knows Oscar as well as anyone, has read his writings, has seen him strike out over and over.  I first read this book when it was newly published and was not impressed.  This audio version has made me change my tune.  Loved every aspect of the dysfunctional family and Oscar's travails.

The beautiful dead

The beautiful dead by Belinda Bauer read by Andrew Wincott, 341 pgs.

Eve Singer is a crime reporter who stumbles onto the work of a serial killer, then attacks the attention of the killer himself.  Eve is a woman with a lot on her mind.  She is taking care of her dementia suffering dad Duncan while trying to push her career to the next level.  She decides to use the serial just like he is using her, to get ahead.  This book is a thriller but some of the scenes seem pretty ridiculous.  I also thought the reader made Eve seem weak instead of smart and strong so can not recommend the audio version.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Hobbit

The Hobbit or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien  365 pp.

I originally read the LOTR trilogy and The Hobbit when I was in college. Several years ago I spent a good portion of the summer listening to the audio version of all three LOTR books. I finally got around to listening to The Hobbit. For those who are completely unaware, it is the story of a Hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins who is chosen by Gandalf, the wizard, to go on an adventure with a group of dwarves to reclaim their mountain and riches from Smaug, the dragon. Along the way Bilbo finds the ring that gives the wearer invisibility which he uses to much advantage during the journey. The audio version read by Rob Inglis is perfectly voiced including the songs. I enjoyed this version a great deal.

Anything is Possible

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, 254 pages. Narrated by Kimberly Farr.
A truly wonderful collection of interconnected stories that follows the people living in Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton, the main character of Strout's previous book, grew up here, and all the characters in this latest work know her or knew her or her family, and many of the townspeople express strong feelings about her and her (fictional) work. There is a lot of pain and anguish here, but it's revealed in an almost unsentimental way that makes it possible for the reader and most of the characters to get through. Everyone is carrying around secrets and hidden wounds in the town of Amgash. Really worth the read. I read the author's Olive Kittredge years ago, but had avoided her subsequent books for some reason I look forward to catching up on all of them now.

Boundless

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki, 248 pages.
The extraordinary Canadian graphic artist and storyteller gives us a collection of short stories that are quite different in tone and texture from her previous works and collaborations, Skim, This One Summer, and Supermutant Magic Academy.
Where those (the first two done in collaboration with her cousin, Mariko) were aimed more at a YA audience, these stories are marketed towards adults. And where earlier works had characters with some hopefulness about their futures, the stories here have characters who look back, if not with regret, then with a sense that some of their earlier optimism had been misplaced, whether it's a woman who finds herself growing smaller every day, the producer of a once popular pornographic sit-com looking back on the show's heyday, or the members of an odd collective / cult who had initially bonded over a shared obsession with a strange music file, the characters tell their tales with hints of melancholy and nostalgia. Very engaging and a very good read.

On the Camino

On the Camino by Jason, 186 pages
Graphic artist Jason recounts his journey on a 500-mile stretch of the pilgrimage route from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Part of the author's journey involves learning to interact with the people he meets along the way; walking with or near them during the day or sharing a meal at the hostels at night. Justin conveys the mix of loneliness, and companionship he felt, along with a bit of the wonder and spirituality (or something like spirituality that he finds and feels along the way.
Not really explained in the book is that Santiago, or St. James the Great, was, of course, the disciple of Jesus, who after he was "decapitated in Jerusalem with a sword by Herod Agrippa himself, his body was taken up by angels, and sailed in a rudderless, unattended boat to Iria Flavia in Iberia, where a massive rock closed around his relics, which were later removed to Compostela" (thanks, Wikipedia). His tomb was discovered in 814 and pilgrims have been making their way there ever since. An interesting book with compelling art.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff, 344 pages.

Decent enough story involving circus folk, orphans, angry adolescents, greed, betrayal and nazis. None of it rings quite true, though;the strarving teen who is found by the circus folk just happened to be a world -class gymnast? And though it's several years into the war the Jewish circus performer who married a German officer is somehow surprised to find out that there's a bit of official antipathy borne by the German government towards Jews?
If you can get past the author's seeming unfamiliarity with her chosen setting, the book is alright.

The Right Side

The Right Side by Spencer Quinn, 323 pages.
Spencer Quinn is the author of the "Chet and Bernie" mysteries,  stories that all apparently feature a dog helping the detective solve crime. That doesn't sound all that appealing to me, but after reading The Right Side, and after finding out that Spencer Quinn is a pseudonym for prolific author Peter Abrahams, I would be willing to give them a try. Abrahams has written a wide array of thrillers over the years and they almost never disappoint.
The main character in this novel is Afghan War vet LeAnne Hogan.  On her last tour, Sgt. Hogan had served with a CST, or Cultural Support Team. It's a real thing apparently, female soldiers work with special operations combat teams to "engage the female population in an objective area when such contact may be deemed culturally inappropriate if performed by a male servicemember." On Hagan's last mission, things went terribly wrong; her friend was killed and she was badly hurt. The book moves between Hagan's earlier life with her parents and her plans, her time in the Army, and then focuses on her PSTD-marred present. While trying to adjust to her circumstances, or maybe to find a way back to her pre-trauma self, Hagan flees Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland and ends up in Washington state, at the home of a dead comrade. Along the way she finds a dog and solves a mystery (the book itself is not a mystery, but you can imagine the sequels with the angry soldier and her trusty canine helping out those in need), and both of these smaller plotlines add to the story. A good story with a compelling main character.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Step aside, pops

Step aside, Pops: a Hark! a vagrant collection / Kate Beaton, 166 pgs.

A comic take on classic literature, feminism, and historical figures, Kate Beaton once again shows us how to be hilarious and somewhat serious at the same time.  Some of the people featured are obscure historical figures and others are well known.  Ever wonder about the relationship between composers Chopin and Liszt? Maybe you can find your insight here.  What if Cinderella's fairy godmother had made her a body builder instead of a garden variety babe? Wondering how the founding fathers would react to a modern mall?  Clearly Jefferson would buy a singing fish.  Always great, Beaton encourages thinking.

Knots and Crosses

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin  256 pp.

Inspector John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police suffers from what we now call PTSD from his time in Britain's elite SAS. He has never talked of his experiences to anyone. Now the policeman is receiving mysterious crank letters that he is ignoring. He is also part of the investigation into a series of murders of young girls. He soon discovers that the next target is his own daughter, Samantha. Eventually a connection between a horrific episode in his SAS career and the serial killings is made and he must race the clock to find his daughter before she too is killed. There is a side plot involving Rebus' stage hypnotist brother and a relentless new reporter who wants to bring down the Rebus brothers. This is a police procedural with interesting twists and a satisfying mystery.

The People We Hate at the Wedding

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder, 326 pages

When you have a book with a title like this one, it immediately begs the question: who are the people they hate at the wedding? The answer, if you consider the "we" to be siblings Alice and Paul, is EVERYONE.

But let's back up: the book starts with 20-something data entry drone Alice conferring with her brother Paul (a psychologist working at a controversial clinic in Philadelphia) about the exorbitant cost of the invitations for the wedding of Eloise, their sister half-sister (as they keep reminding us, and each other). Eloise is their mother's child from her globe-trotting first marriage to wealthy French businessman Henrique, while Alice and Paul are the children of Bill, an accountant from the Chicago suburbs, and the sharp divide between their upbringings persists into adulthood, with Alice and Paul dismissing their elder sister as a pampered snob (which she is) and Eloise attempting to solve their problems by throwing money at them. And let's not even get started on their mother, Donna, a widow who has turned to pot to deal with her issues. As Eloise prepares for her wedding in the English countryside, Alice and Paul deal with their own baggage of dead-end jobs and unconventional relationships, adding up to a hot mess in the days leading up to the wedding.

Each chapter takes us into a different character's point of view, giving us insight into each character's motivations and personality that makes them much more three-dimensional and sympathetic than if this was a straightforward novel. This is an excellent addition to the dysfunctional family genre; fans of Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's hit The Nest will like this one, and it's a perfect read for the summer wedding season.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We are never meeting in real life

We are never meeting in real life: essays / Samantha Irby, 275 pgs.

After choosing this book based solely on the cover (something I explained here), I read Irby's previous book while I waited for this to come up on hold for me.  This one is just as good as the last.  I laughed out loud several times, once scaring my own cats when I could not easily stop laughing. Irby continues to tell it like it is, she does not sugar coat, she does not care if she offends you, she does not care if it embarrasses you because it certainly doesn't embarrass her.  In other words, Irby is everything I admire.  This book has some great insights, some absolutely profane disgusting stories, and something else.  After years of dating men, she found the perfect woman and married her.  Keep up the good work Samantha, I'm already ready for your next book.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Little Hotel

The Little Hotel / Christina Stead, 209 pp.

Some time ago Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay about another Stead novel, The Man Who Loved Children, praising it in the highest possible terms.  Whether he was responsible for renewed interest in Stead, an Australian who did most of her writing outside her homeland, I can't say.  But we currently have several brand-spanking new copies of her novels, just issued by Text Classics, so I thought I'd give one a try.

Set in a '4th-class hotel' on Lake Geneva in the years just after WWII, The Little Hotel is full of Brits, Americans, Belgians, Swiss, and Italians who have washed up for a variety of reasons, nearly all of them having to do with money and the need to hide it in Switzerland.  In between gossiping, fighting, drinking, and insulting the servants, they all plan to leave at any moment, for fear that the Russians will descend and confiscate all of those precious funds.  Every page of this is funny, some of it hilariously so, but the undercurrent of pathos is strong.  I loved every page.


Dragon Teeth

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton, 295 pages

Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth follows William Johnson, an aimless rich college student who makes a $1000 bet with a rival that he'll go west on a paleontology excursion to recover dinosaur bones from the Montana and Wyoming territories. Johnson fulfills the bet, joining the voyage of Yale professor Orthniel Marsh, a paranoid man who has a fierce rivalry with Edward Cope. Heading west, Johnson (a greenhorn if ever there was one) gets pulled into a world of shootouts, saloons, bandits, and, of course, the ongoing war between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes of the western territories.

This is not a great novel. I generally like the late Crichton's books, particularly when he dips his toe into historical fiction (Timeline and The Great Train Robbery are my two favorite Crichton novels), but this book is filled with stereotypes and celebrity run-ins (Robert Louis Stevenson AND Wyatt Earp) that make me cringe. Also, it lacks the researched-within-an-inch-of-its-life feel that were the hallmark of the books published during Crichton's life (he died in 2008). Diehard Crichton fans will appreciate this for its historical significance — an afterword notes that this book dates back to the mid-70s and represents the beginning of the Jurassic Park author's interest in dinosaurs — but I can't really recommend it for any other reason.

The easy way out

The easy way out / Stephen McCauley, 298 pgs.

Patrick one of three brothers, he is the gay one but the only one in a long term relationship.  But he is wondering if he should continue the relationship.  Arthur is a good guy but a bit boring.  He wants them to buy a house together which might be too much commitment for Patrick.  Brother Tony is engaged but also in the middle of a torrid love affair with a woman he clearly prefers over his fiance.  Ryan has been separated from his wife for three years and living in his parent's basement.  The parents, Rita and Jim are the perfect picture of dysfunctional marriage.  They only know how to fight and don't seem to have ever liked each other much.  They are not very helpful to their sons as far as figuring out relationships even though they are clearly devoted to them.  This summary seems kind of bleak but the book itself is very funny. McCauley has a great perspective on family matters, nothing is taken too seriously.  Also, love that Patrick is a travel agent...does that job even exist anymore?  Great fun.

What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?

What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman  255 pp.

This is a collection of anecdotes by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman mainly about two very important periods of his life. The first half of the book concerns his unfortunately short marriage to his first wife, Arlene, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis before they married. Whenever Arlene asked him to do something and he was worried how it would look to others she would say, "What do you care what other people think?" and he would do as she asked. They had an amazing relationship in spite of her illness. She died in a hospital in Albuquerque, NM while Feynman was working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project. The second half concerns Feynman's work for the Rogers Commission investigating the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. It was Feynman who demonstrated during a press conference how the now infamous "O-ring" failed after being exposed to the cold temperatures in Florida the morning of the disaster. He also pointed out that NASA higher-ups were more concerned with the publicity surrounding the space program than listening to the engineers and techs when problems were found.

Illumination Night

Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman  224 pp.

I've read a number of Hoffman's books and this one is my least favorite to date. It's the story of a family Vonny & Andre and their young son, Simon, a problem teenager sent to help her ailing grandmother, and a reclusive gentle giant. The couple has money issues and worries about their young son's lack of growth. The Elizabeth, elderly woman, is failing in health bit by bit. Jody, the teenager, is a wild one and her grandmother is hoping to turn her into a decent human being. There is an illicit attraction between Andre and Jody. All the family worries cause Vonny to have panic attacks and agoraphobia. The giant recluse doesn't appear until the last half of the book when he develops a crush on Jody. A horrible accident brings the giant out of hiding. There are a few too many twists for such a short book. It would have been better if either a few things were left out or the final product longer.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Al Franken, giant of the Senate

Al Franken, giant of the Senate / Al Franken, read by Al Franken, 406 pgs.

After a 35 year career in comedy, Al Franken decided to run for senate.  He won in the closest race in history and set to prove to his constituents that he was up for the job, willing to work hard, and stay true to his progressive values. In this memoir, Franken tells about the issues dear to him, talks about what it is like to be a senator and reveals some of the jokes that he was unable to tell on the senate floor because his staff has forbidden it.  Franken is no Stuart Smalley but parts really give you hope about politics, politicians and the direction of the country...right up until November 2016.  Oh well, still a great book and the audio version is wonderful.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Certain dark things

Certain dark things / Silvia Moreno-Garcia read by Dan Bittner, 323 pgs.

Drug wars, Mexico City and vampires.  Domingo, a street kid who is a junk picker meets Atl, an Aztec vampire who, along with her dog is being hunted by at least a couple of enemies and the cops.  Atl's clan has been murdered (including her mother and sister) and she goes to Mexico City to find help.  Now Domingo and a couple of old family acquaintances are her only hope.  Lots of action, lots of intrigue, and great narration by Dan Bittner.  Never thought I would like this book but couldn't stop listening once I started.

The crossing, by Andrew Miller



In the beginning, Tim is infatuated by the enigmatic Maud, a classmate and fellow member of the university sailing club.  Seeing her fall from the deck of the dry docked boat they are working on seals his fate.  Caring for the injured young woman leads to their moving in together and then becoming the parents of Zoe.  Tim is from a moneyed family, musical, and somewhat unambitious, so he stays home with their daughter, while Maud, now a research scientist, works long engrossing hours.  Some see her as a brilliant introvert, others as odd and cold – the latter opinion is held by Tim’s parents, and ultimately Tim.  In the first half of this short novel, we see things primarily from Tim’s viewpoint.  Then when Zoe enters school, tragedy strikes.  Both parents are stunned.  Tim casts his fate with the neighbor, Bella, with whom he has had an ongoing affair for some time.  Maud heads to the Lodestar, the sailing boat they have jointly bought and restored, and then off to sea from England and across the Atlantic.  The second half of the book is her voyage and its aftermath – or perhaps a new beginning for Maud.  The writing is excellent and the character of Maud will haunt you, but I’ve not been quite as surprised, in an annoyed way, by the ending of a plotline since Geraldine Brooks A Year of Wonder, a terrific book about the Black Death in England, which in the final chapter transports the main character into a Turkish harem and dumps her there.  Still trying to figure this book out – what became of Maud and what actually happened in the tragedy that sets the second half in motion.  It’s compelling reading and unique. [another annoyance is the number of spellcheck type wrong words -- are there no editors anymore?] 316 pp.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes  410 pp.

Fellowes, creator of "Downtown Abbey" penned this book several years ago. It is also about the British upper class but this time focuses on the changes and deterioration of their way of life from post World War II to the present. The narrator is a bit of an outsider to the group of children of the gentry but is included in all the coming out balls, etc. In later life he is asked by his long estranged friend, Damian to locate the child he fathered with one of his ex-girlfriends. The dying Damian only knows of the child from an anonymous letter and wants to leave his fortune to the child. The book flashes back to various episodes in the lives of this group of friends between the narrator's interviews with the old girlfriends. Frequent foreshadowing about an incident in Portugal that led to Damian's self banishment from the group. That episode is revealed near the end of the book. The story is okay but not particularly captivating due to Fellowes' frequent digressions about the sociological changes occurring in Britain during the last half of the 20th century. It is almost as if he would forget he was telling a story and not writing an academic treatise.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Setting Free the Kites

Setting free the kites / Alex George, read by Ari Fliakos, 324 pgs.

The book opens with Robert Carter being bullied.  Robert is not having the best time, his older brother is weak with muscular dystrophy and won't live much longer, his parents are struggling with the impending loss of a child.  Robert is sort of ignored.  A new kid, Nathan, starts school and rescues Robert from the bully.  Now they are fast friends.  The book follows Robert and Nathan's adventures over a couple of years.  There seems to be a lot of tragedy involved.  I found it all pretty depressing.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Police at the station and they don't look friendly

Police at the station and they don't look friendly / Adrian McKinty, 319 pgs. Read by Gerard Doyle

Sean Duffy is one of those cops who will do what is "right," rules be damned!  The kind of cop I love to read about.  When a drug dealer ends up dead, he is investigating even though there is evidence that the crime is IRA related and thus will probably not ever be solved.  But Sean isn't going to let that stop him.  He starts putting together a theory and the more he digs, the more he sees this case is something bigger.  Throw in a couple of assassination attempts, a  blackmail scheme and some heavy drinking and you have the making of a perfect cop story.  This is part of a series and normally I hate not starting at the beginning, but I will certainly go back and fix this soon.  Narrator Gerard Doyle is an award winner and I can see why, he does a wonderful job and the pacing makes you want to feed one cd after the other.

Born Bright

Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something by C. Nicole Mason  242 pp.

After retrieving this book from my sleeping cat, I finished it in anticipation of the upcoming discussion including the Skype visit by the author. Without giving too much away, it is the story of Dr. Mason's living in a childhood of poverty in dangerous circumstances, navigating an inferior school system, and ultimately making it to college.

Lizzie liked it better as a pillow. 

Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell  426 pp.

Mitchell's novels are not particularly easy but they are intriguing. Ghostwritten is a series of stories involving widely disparate characters living through a variety of life events that are all connected in some small, or large, way. A terrorist act in Japan by a devoted cult member reminiscent of the Sarin attack in a Tokyo subway connects with a vintage jazz record store sales clerk to an old woman with a tea shack through a crooked lawyer and a disc jockey among others. The stories and vignettes travel from Japan through China, Mongolia, Russia, England, and the U.S. While reading I would frequently wonder how the subsequent section would connect to the previous ones. It is intriguing and yes, there are ghosts.

Fire!!

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge, 104 pages

In this short graphic biography, Bagge attempts to tell the life story of Zora Neale Hurston, from her youth in Eatonville, Florida, through her writing career and multiple anthropological trips to the Caribbean, to her late-life decline. While he succeeds in hitting the main points, Fire!! doesn't really do service to the multifaceted life that Hurston led; this is more of a montage than a biography. That said, Bagge does provide a lot of background information in the notes at the end of the book, which is well worth reading. So this is a good jumping-off point for those who know nothing about Hurston, but by no means an endpoint.

(Also: I was sad to see Hurston wearing the same simple outfit and hat throughout the book. She was well known for her love of audacious hats and clothing, which Bagge mentions in his foreword, before announcing his decision to keep her style simple so as to not distract from the overall story. Smart choice, but still sad.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, 227 pages

Colin Singleton is a self-defined washed-up child prodigy. He recently graduated from high school and was dumped by his girlfriend Katherine (marking the 19th time he's been dumped by someone with that name), and as such is feeling a bit lost. In attempt to clear his head, Colin and his Judge Judy-loving best friend Hassan head off on a road trip that takes them to Gutshot, Tennessee, where they get to know the locals while Colin works on a mathematical theorem that would explain romantic relationships.

Like all of Green's books, this one is quirky and brilliantly brings to life the awkwardness of the teenage years. While An Abundance of Katherines doesn't have the buzz of The Fault in Our Stars or Paper Towns (both of which were made into movies) or Green's debut, Looking for Alaska (a Printz Award-winner that's also carved out a near-permanent on ALA's frequently challenged books list), Colin's fascination with anagrams and trivia, as well as the absurdity of attempting to mathematically explain love, make this my favorite of Green's books. It's sweet, it's funny, and it's awesome.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The dinner party and other stories, by Joshua Ferris



It is a great compliment, from me, to say that these stories remind me a bit of Alice Munro’s.  Although they are shorter than a typical Munro story, like hers, each story is almost as rich as a novel.  A small cast of characters are so deftly and tellingly drawn that one feels that one understands them deeply in a matter of a couple pages.  However, I began to approach picking up the book again with dread.  I found each of the eleven stories so sad, or depressing, or disturbing, or in one case horrifying, that I can’t say I “enjoyed” them.  There is a good bit of humor in many of the stories, but somehow it didn’t lighten my mood.  However, he’s some writer.  243 pp.