Sunday, December 9, 2018

Lair of Dreams

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray, 613 pages


I finished The Diviners in November and quickly picked up the sequel. The book picks up a short while after the end of The Diviners. Evie O'Neill is living it up, jumping from party to party and enjoying the fame that her skill has brought her. Sam Lloyd's search for any information about Project Buffalo is make that much more complicated when he is pulled into the lime light, posing as Evie's fiance. Henry DuBois, who is able to enter and influence other people's dreams, hopes that he can combine his power with fellow dream walker, Ling Chan, to find his lost love. Meanwhile, Theta is struggling to keep her own powers under control and secret.

In the background of all this, a sickness is reaching epidemic levels in China Town. People are falling into a coma-like sleep in which they develop blisters all over their bodies and eventually die. Some supernatural force is feeding off them and it falls to Henry and Ling to find out what is happening and how to stop it.

While I think the book could have been made shorter, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have started the next book already.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Acadian Kitchen

The Acadian Kitchen: Recipes from Then and Now by Alain Bossé, 240 pages

A collection of recipes from eastern Canada's earliest settlers, The Acadian Kitchen is a wonderful mix of French-inspired cuisine and hearty home favorites. Just looking at the photos of stews, pies, biscuits, and more in this cookbook warms my bones and kick-starts my salivary glands. I was only able to try a couple of the recipes here, but they were fantastic, and I can completely see myself either checking this out again and again, or buying it so that I don't spill some tasty stew all over the pages of the library copy.

Washington Black

Washington Black / Esi Edugyan,  333 p.

At age twelve, Washington Black escapes the Barbados sugar plantation where he is enslaved in a hot air balloon, in the care of the plantation master's younger brother Titch.  This is a great premise for a novel, and along with the premise this unusual work has many great features.  The sugar plantation itself is wonderfully rendered as a hideous hell-on-earth, complete with tropical breezes.  And Edugyan masterfully and subtly depicts the interior landscape of an enslaved child, one who is at once astute, creative and intelligent but who has lived an entire existence without experiencing a single moment of personal agency.  Most of us have read accounts of the violence, terror and excruciating labor of slavery, but I have never quite had a writer show me the stark powerlessness of the enslaved before.

Wash and Titch travel to the Arctic Circle in search of Titch's father, another eccentric scientist.  Their eventual parting, and Wash's journey to becoming a free man in his own right, were less interesting to me as reading experiences.  Edugyan wisely leaves the reader to decide what constitutes a 'free man.'

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Less


Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017) 261 pages

As with anyone that I've just met, it takes a little while for Arthur Less, a 49-year-old white gay guy, a bit of a second-tier writer, to grow on me. He's having a mid-life crisis partly because of his upcoming 50th birthday and partly because Freddy, his lover for the past nine years, is going to be married to another guy very soon. Less is invited to the wedding, but rather than just declining the invitation, he ends up accepting every other invitation he can find to take him away from home in San Francisco for many weeks: These invitations include teaching a class in Germany, going on a writing retreat in India, doing a series of tastings for a magazine article in Japan, etc., seven stops in total, all in order to save face and to distract himself.

The writing tone seems just a tad clinical at first, but as Less follows his travel itinerary, the understated humor of the very strange situations that he finds himself in grows progressively funnier. I especially enjoyed the translations of the German which Less speaks while he's in Berlin. (Arthur has been insisting he's fluent in German, but we find otherwise!)

The conversations that Less has with others are often thought-provoking meaning-of-life and love kind of philosophies which differ widely. One mystery: the narrator. Little crumbs thrown out from time to time show that the narrator personally knows Less. Who is it??



Grief works


Grief works: stories of life, death and surviving / Julia Samuel, 272 pgs.

Julia Samuel has been a grief counselor for 25 years and here she tells some personal stories of people coping with death.  She has sections on death of a partner, a child, a sibling, and dealing with your own death. Somehow we are all going to deal with death but we still aren't good at it.  Your grief and sadness are totally normal.  It seems like we should try to get better at it as a group.  This book might help.  It is very well done and I hope it will prevent me from saying something stupid next time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

An absolutely remarkable thing

An absolutely remarkable thing / Hank Green, read by Kristen Sieh, 343 pgs.

April May and her art school buddies discover a sculpture of a robot, make a quick movie and post it on social media. Only later does it become apparent that there are LOTS of these robots and nobody knows why they are here and they are definitely NOT an art installation. Social media fame and hilarity ensue. There is no point in doing a more detailed summary because it is a silly plot and silly exchanges among the characters. This book also doesn't help with the question, "Can a man write a convincing female character." Green makes April bi-sexual and lets her treat her girlfriend like crap and behave like a stereotypical guy. Maybe I'm being too harsh on the story but the audio narrator Sieh does a great job and really embodies April May.

A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety

A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter  272 pp.

The first presidential election I voted in was in 1976 when Carter won. This autobiography/memoir was published in 2015 after Carter's 90th birthday. Now the longest retired U.S. President in history, Carter writes of his childhood on the family farm in the predominantly African-American town of Archery, Georgia (near his current home in Plains). Much is written about the hard work of farming and how he learned many of his mechanical and woodworking skills and how, as a teenager, was the owner of property he rented to tenants. From there Carter tells of his time at the U.S. Naval Academy and his naval career that ended when he returned home to Georgia to manage the family business after his father's death. After following his father's footsteps into heading various social organizations he migrated into politics and ultimately the Presidency. But his biggest successes followed his time in office with his work with the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity, and serving as a negotiator during various world conflicts. Carter writes very matter-of-factly about his successes and failures and always acknowledges the presence and assistance of his wife Rosalynn who he frequently calls Rosa in the book. Definitely worth reading.




Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dopesick

Dopesick: dealers, doctors, and the drug company that addicted America / Beth Macy, read by the author, 325 pgs.

Oh boy, this is such an amazing book but also so depressing.  Macy has done extensive research on the over twenty year history of the addiction crisis that is ongoing.  She examines the role of big pharma, the FDA, doctors and dealers have had in the devastation of entire communities.  She looks at the economic impact and the personal toll addiction takes by revealing extensive research and personal stories.  Not uplifting but if you want to understand the scope and depth of this problem, read this book.

The Reason You're Alive

The Reason You're Alive / Matthew Quick,  read by R.C. Bray, 226 p.

Vietnam combat vet David Granger recuperates from brain surgery, performed by a "girly-man surgeon" who "wouldn't have lasted ten seconds in the jungle."  The brain problems, which may or may not have been caused by Agent Orange exposure 50 years ago in that jungle, have triggered memories for our narrator, who tells us his life story in the least politically-correct language imaginable.  It's also a funny, sad, and extraordinarily touching story about a gun-toting, right-wing father connecting with his 'dumb liberal' son.  Granger is a great character, fully brought to life in an excellent reading by R.C. Bray.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Horse Walks Into A Bar

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, 194 pages.
Grossman, described as one of Israel's greatest living authors, gives readers an odd yet searing reflection on how the actions we take when we are young can follow us through our lives. Dovelah Greenstein, a comedian past his prime (if he ever had a prime), invites his onetime friend to his show in Caesaria. The friend, former judge Avishai Lazar, once attended the same summer camp as Dov when they were both children. That experience was a searing turning point for Dov, a child already scarred by his relationship with his parents, his violently angry father, and his mother, scarred by her experiences hiding from the Nazis. Dov relates the story of the summer camp and of his childhood to us and to his audience through his painfully personal comic routine on this fateful night in Caesaria. An excellent book, among Grossman's best.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, 354 pages

Unknown to the mundane world, there's an enclave of wealthy magicians living on the Upper East Side of New York City. Every 20 or so years, an event called The Turning takes place, ostensibly to shake up the magicians' power structure by allowing magicians from different Houses to challenge one another to progressively harder duels. While it has the chance to change, generally speaking it doesn't shake things up too much: the Merlin House has been in power for decades and relatively unchallenged in each Turning. But when The Turning comes early, it also brings the arrival of Sydney, an uber-powerful outsider who is bent on truly changing the way magic works.


Something seemed missing from this novel. It went quickly and was similar to a YA book in that sense, but it seemed like Howard skated over the surface when there was SO MANY depths that could have been plumbed. The backstory of The Turning, the role of the magicians in the wider world, how they all passed along their knowledge... and those are just the ones I can mention without spoiling anything. While I enjoyed the light page-turner (it brought to mind what Gossip Girl might be like if Blair Waldorf was a magician), I would have loved to see more depth. That said, this was an interesting concept for a novel, and there's plenty of fodder for discussion at the next Orcs & Aliens book group.

The proposal

The proposal / Jasmine Guillory, 325 pgs.

Nik is subjected to a disastrous public proposal by her model-actor boyfriend who has only been around for five months.  She is observed by an entire stadium full of people who see her say NO to the guy on bended knee.  Carlos and his sister Angie are behind them and realize everyone is descending on her so they pretend to be old friends and usher her out.  Thus starts a rebound romance between Nik and Carlos...neither of whom are looking for anything serious.  If you know anything about romance, however, you know they are perfect for each other even if it takes them longer than anyone else to reach that conclusion.  Not my usual genre but with interesting characters and a strong LA vibe, a nice diversion.

The tattooist of Auschwitz

The tattooist of Auschwitz / Heather Morris, read by Richard Armitage, 273 pgs.

A novelized memoir based on the experiences of Auschwitz survivor Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who spent almost three years in the camp. He tattooed numbers on the arms of fellow detainees including Gita, a woman who would become his wife.  the horrors of the camp are interspersed with stories of their love affair.  As with all Holocaust literature, there are uplifting moments but mostly a horrible realization that this really happened.  Richard Armitage does a great reading.

November totals!

This is what I get for asking Winona Ryder to help with my Christmas decorations.
Christa  11/3137
Cindy  4/637
Heather  1/432
Jan  8/1705
Josh  2/1136
Kara  12/3923
Karen C  6/1790
Kathleen  9/2524
Linda  5/1742
Naomi  1/578
Patrick  10/3526
Reneise  5/1096

Total: 74/22,226

My Man Jeeves

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse  157 pp.

I love the Jeeves and Wooster stories and have for years. Every so often I revisit them because they are such fun to read. This short collection was first published in 1919 and features four Jeeves stories and four about another Wodehouse character, Reggie Pepper, who apparently was an early prototype for Bertie Wooster but not quite as dim. The audiobook version is well read by Simon Prebble.

City on A Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement

City on A Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, 350 pages.

Hirschhorn gives an account of several groups of American Jews who became an integral part of the Israeli settlement movement. Beginning in the 1960s, groups of American Jews have crossed the Green Line and begun settlements in what became the Israeli occupied territories after the 1967 Six Day War.
The author explores the motivations of these settlers with a balanced hand. A fascinating look at a complex subject.

Dread Nation

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, 455 pages

Dread Nation coverI finished this book a few days ago and have already recommended it to most of my friends and
family. Th book takes place in an alternate 19th century. Zombies rose from the battlefields of the Civil War and changed American history forever. The Civil War reached a tenuous conclusion when the living were forced to band together to fight the zombie hordes that could turn entire towns within hours. Slavery was ended but that does not mean that black people were free. The Native and Negro Reeducation Act was put into place. This forced black and native people into combat schools where they were trained to fight the zombies.

Jane McKeene attends one such school where she and other black girls are trained to be attendants to white women - part servant, part guard. She is strong-willed, opportunistic, and impulsive. I instantly loved her character. When she stumbles upon a mystery, she can't help but to investigate and quickly finds that things are not all as they seem at Miss Preston's School of Combat. I listened to the audiobook, which was read by the author. Ireland has a lovely voice and is able to give so much personality to the characters through her reading. I listened to it constantly - when I got ready in the morning, on my commute to work, and while doing my chores. My only regret is that the release date for the sequel has not been announced.

This book is perfect for anyone who loves conspiracies, zombies, or characters who could not be more different coming together to overcome the difficult situations they find themselves in.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Maus

Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman  159 pp.

I read this back when I first started working at the library. I re-read it now before re-reading the second volume for my book club at the alternative school. This is the award-winning and ground breaking graphic novel about Spiegelman's parents' experiences during the Holocaust. Spiegelman depicts the characters as animals: his family and other Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, Americans are dogs, and the Nazis are cats. This is the book that changed graphic novels into something more than just "comics."

Holidays on Ice

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris  166 pp.

David Sedaris launches a humorous attack on the holiday season with tales of time spent as a Macy's elf, a horrifying "keeping up with the Joneses" story of competing neighbors, a hilarious review of multiple school Christmas pageants, an annual holiday letter gone wrong, the problems of explaining American holidays to foreigners, and much more. Much to laugh out loud at while retaining thoughtful critiques on the madness of the holiday season.

Friday, November 30, 2018

An Almost Perfect Christmas

An Almost Perfect Christmas / Nina Stibbe, 176 p.

From the author of the wonderful Love, Nina and other delights comes a series of Christmas essays.  Not as gut-bustingly funny as previous works but still good fun.  My favorite part was the 'Almost Comprehensive Glossary of Christmas.'  Here's a sample entry:

Disco Deathbeat: Second-hand paperback porn-thriller given to my mother in 1995.  See funny gifts.

A Duke by Default

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole, 376 pages

When picking out novels to read, I generally tend toward science fiction and fantasy, quirky characters, and often, a wicked sense of humor. Because of that, I don't often venture into the land of romance — I could probably count the number of romance novels I've read on one hand. But Alyssa Cole, you may be changing that with your Reluctant Royals books. The first book, A Princess in Theory, came out earlier this year, and it's made my list of favorites of 2018. Its followup, A Duke by Default, is just as good, with a great mix of three-dimensional characters, humor, female empowerment, romantic tension, and a surprising streak of nerdiness running throughout.

In this book, rich and flighty Portia has taken her "look, a squirrel" self to Edinburgh, Scotland, for an apprenticeship at a small armory that makes historically accurate swords. When she gets there, she finds out that the armory owner, gruff and sexy Highlander Tavish McKenzie, is also a Luddite who has no idea how much business he's missing out on by ignoring the internet. Determined to stay professional for once, Portia dives headlong into helping out the struggling business, taking on the marketing and website for Tavish, despite her boss's skepticism. Along the way, sparks fly (and not just in the forge) as Portia struggles to figure out herself and her role both at the armory and in Tavish's life.

Based on how great the first two books were, I'm going to go ahead and reserve the third book, which comes out next spring.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Herland

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) 146 pages

This novel from 1915 was not on my radar until a colleague handed it to me. The premise: Three friends, all men, hear rumors about a strange land of women and girls only, and they decide to see if it really exists. In fact, it does. The country is in a remote area, isolated when a volcanic eruption blocked off the one path that connected it to the rest of the world. The men are able to enter the country via an airplane. After they land, what they see amazes them; they have trouble believing that men did not have a part in providing the amenities in this self-sufficient society.

The three men are quite different from each other. Terry is quite rich (he owns the airplane) and believes that women are the lesser gender; he expects women to flock to him. Jeff is a doctor with interest in poetry as well as biology; he treats women with great reverence. The third man, Van, is a sociologist interested in all sciences and cultures. His view of women falls somewhere between the views of the other two. The story is told in his voice.

For a book past the century mark, many of the ideas seem very fresh.


The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton, 485 pages

Archivist Elodie is sifting through a box at work when she stumbles upon a sketchbook that once belonged to Victorian artist Edward Radcliffe. Among the images he sketched are a hauntingly beautiful woman and a gabled, multi-chimney country home that Elodie immediately recognizes from a fairy tale her long-dead mother once told her. From there, the book hops around from Elodie's modern story to that of Radcliffe's beautiful model in the 1850s to a young student at the turn of the 20th Century to a researcher in the late 1920s to a mother and her children taking refuge at the house during the London Blitz. Throughout all of it is a narrative from a ghost who haunts the house, seeing all of these stories as they happen.

I love the idea for this book, but the execution is a bit rough, in part because Morton fleshes out each story SO MUCH — I kept finding myself hooked into a story only to find it dropping off in favor of a different character's story at a different time. I feel like Morton would have done well to cut out a storyline or two, and checked in with Elodie a bit more often (as she is the one who gets us into this whole tale to begin with). Great idea though.

Woman World

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, 247 pages.

The book is based on and expanded from the author's web / Instagram comic, also called Woman World. The comic (both book and Insta) explores the world after men slowly disappear; there are fewer born every year until woman are humankind. Simultaneously the world is wracked by a series of natural disasters and upheavals, leaving the population in a gently post-apocalyptic world. In a funny, satirical, and lighthearted way, Dhaliwal pokes fun at the world we live in and the way we go about our lives. A fun read with clean, interesting art.

Falling Glass

Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty, 309 pages

McKinty is pretty masterful at telling a story in a way that keeps the reader interested, keeps them guessing, and that keeps everything in the story moving along. This is one of his stand-alone novels (as opposed to his Detective Sean Duffy or other series). In Falling Glass, Killian, a former enforcer and collector for a variety of bad people finds that his grand plan of investing in real estate and retiring from crime has not worked out in the wake of the housing market crash. Consequently, he drifts back into the life he thought he had left for good. After a particularly deft bit of collection, during which he recovered a large sum with no blow-back or bloodshed, Killian is hired by one of the richest men in Ireland to help track down his ex-wife and children. The client, an airline tycoon, explains that he is afraid his ex has resumed her drug habit and may be putting their young daughters at risk. Soon Killian finds that not everyone is being honest with him, and he runs up against a Chechen war vet who is seeking the same people. The Russian fixer is younger, stronger, and has a good deal less restraint or conscience. A really good book.
This audio, like most of the recordings of McKinty's books, is narrated by the excellent Gerard Doyle.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen, 460 pages.

A fascinating look at how genes change and travel throughout the living world, and, also the various science-folk who have discussed the various tree or blob shapes that can be used to show the relatedness of living things. Lynn Marguilis, Carl Woese, and many other people working in the field are discussed. Various theories ebb and flow, but one of the main foci of the book is horizontal gene transfer, or the movement of genetic material between individual microorganisms and between species, becoming apparent to human beings through phenomena like quickly spreading antibiotic resistance. By the time the Human Genome Project was underway and genetic mapping was becoming more common, evidence of HGT was found in insects, crustaceans, head lice and nematodes. The work continues as new discoveries show more of the interrelatedness of species and more of the problems in trying to map out the relatedness of families, phyla, genera and species. A compelling book, with a convoluted story, conflicting theories (over time), and brilliant people disagreeing passionately, and sometimes bitterly. The downloadable audio was narrated by Jacques Roy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Appetites A Cookbook

Appetites A Cookbook, Anthony Bourdain with Laurie Woolever, 304 pages

Anthony Bourdain's sardonic humor and sense of what is important to him comes through in the text and pictures of Appetites A Cookbook. The accompanying photos for recipes are not stock images of plated perfection, but rough, post-modern glam shots and sometimes are just remnants of the food left on a plate. A chapter on dessert that is one page, and simply says "F*ck Dessert", then explains how he isn't the person to provide recipes about something he isn't good at and he doesn't like. Every recipe has an anecdote about where it comes from or what it means to him, often hilarious and written with a sense of purpose and singularity that expects a reader to have a baseline of both skill and restaurant work experience. It is not a beginner's cook book, though it does touch on how to properly make stock and roast a chicken (which are beginner's skill sets). The recipes are more suggestions than step by step instructions. This is not to denigrate their efficacy, but rather to highlight that they focus more on being able to connect the dots to make a dish your own, than to follow a step by step guide.

The Orchard

The Orchard by Yochi Brandes, 381 pages.

Fictional account of the life of Rabbi Akiva and the sages and Rabbis living in the first and early second centuries. Brandes does a great job of telling a story that feels real, with a good sense for these historical figures as characters and with a setting that seems realistic. An interesting look at fascinating times wherein the Sages and leaders of Israel had to contend with the longstanding disputes between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Nazarenes. Rabbi Akiva, who started formal study of the Torah in his forties was at the center of the later stages of these struggles, ending with the Bar Kakhba revolt against the Romans.

Rogues

Rogues, Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, 832 pages

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have created an anthology of morally grey and ethically questionable characters across a multitude of genres. Martin's introduction points to a childhood experience of buying books that from candy shops and news stands, where no genre sorting was employed and you could find "The Brothers Karamazov sandwiched between a nurse novel and the latest Mike Hammer yarn from Mickey Spillane." This childhood experience is carried into the anthology with steam punk, modern, and fantasy stories all brought together by the theme of character. I really enjoyed Michael Swanwick's Tawny Petticoats, a story of con men in a New Orleans full of gene splicing, zombies, and pirates. The density and genre spanning of tales may not appeal to everyone, but within the anthology there is most likely something that will appeal to all readers.

Fever Dream

Fever Dream by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  405 pp.

This is not the same Fever Dream that Christa reviewed. It is part of the series featuring FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast. In this installment Pendergast investigates the death of his wife Helen. For twelve years he believed she had been mauled to death by a ferocious red maned lion in Zambia but discovers her death was actual murder. He sets out to find her killer with the assistance of NYPD Lt. Vincent D'Agosta. Their investigation leads them to Africa and then to Louisiana where they discover the late Mrs. Pendergast's obsession with the work of John James Audubon that is somehow connect with her jobs with "Doctors with Wings", a charity organization and a pharmaceutical company. Agent Pendergast soon realizes he knew very little about the woman he loved. When D'Agosta is seriously injured, his lover, NYPD Captain Laura Hayward joins the investigation. The standoff in a Louisiana swamp is riveting. I did not realize when I started listening to the audiobook that this is the first book in a trilogy. With the exception of the mispronunciation of New Madrid, Missouri by Rene Auberjonois, the narration is excellent.     


Wrecked

Wrecked: an IQ Novel / Joe Ide, 343 p.

This was my first experience with the IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) series, and I plan to go back for more.  IQ's private detective business in Long Beach is just beginning to take off when he meets Grace, an attractive painter who needs help finding her mom Sarah, disappeared 10 years earlier.  Although Isaiah is sure that her disappearance has something to do with Grace's dead father's connection to the military and his time at Abu Ghraib, Grace doesn't want to probe the past.  Told from both Isaiah's point of view and that of a group of former soldiers who did horrible things at Abu Ghraib and are now trying to run from the past, this story is suspenseful, realistic, and psychologically true.

I love the character of IQ, smart and tough but modest and mild-mannered.  He functions as a one-man neighborhood watch, solving problems for people too poor to pay with cash.  As payment, he accepts knitted wool scarves (in LA), window washing, and artwork, among other things.  Well drawn and likable side characters round out an excellent story.

Milk Street Tuesday Nights

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Tuesday Nights / Christopher Kimball, 405 p.

There are lots of cookbooks that are beautiful, or that tempt you out of your culinary comfort zone, or that just plain make you hungry.  To me the mark of a great cookboook is utility: will you turn to it day after day to help you put dinner on the table, and will the dinner turn out to be something you actually want to eat?  By that  measure, Tuesday Nights earns an A+, while also being terrific to look at.

Broken into three primary sections, Fast, Faster, and Fastest, these are meals you can have on the table in 20 - 45 minutes.  Other chapters include One Pot, Pizza Night, Supper Salads, you get the idea.  Basically, the reader decides which approach he wants to take for dinner, and the book gets you there, with clear instructions and nice photos.  I can personally vouch for: Persian Barley-Vegetable Soup, Sopa Seca with Butternut Squash, Soba with Edamame and Watercress, and Columbian Coconut Chicken. Comprehensive and recommended. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Florida, by Lauren Groff


I had mixed feelings about Groff’s well-received earlier novel, Fates and furies, as I do about this new collection of short stories.  In both, Florida is as much a character as a place, and after reading this collection full of snakes and swamps and creepy characters, her Florida is not a place I want to visit (well, actually, I don’t want to visit the real Florida either….).  The stories are very good, and the book was a National Book Award contender this year (as was Fates and furies), but I still don’t really “enjoy” them.  Her subject matter always seems a bit overwrought.  275 pp.

The winter soldier, by Daniel Mason


It’s hard not to hate the author, who judging from his jacket photo and blurb is young and handsome in addition to being a physician, professor at Stanford, and a very good novelist.  The winter soldier is his third novel and combines his writing skills with his background as a doctor.  Lucius is a twenty-two year old medical student in Vienna when WWI breaks out in 1914.  His aristocratic parents despair at his insistence in entering the professions rather than marrying well and upholding the family tradition of not doing much, certainly not something as low-class as working as a doctor.  However, he is socially inept and finds his calling and comfort in science and medicine.  While still a student, he is sent to a remote village field hospital in the Carpathian mountains where he meets a nursing sister, Margarete, who has been single-handedly holding the makeshift hospital together after the former physician had a nervous crisis and disappeared.  Lucius has been injured on the way there, breaking his wrist, which turns out to be fortunate as his actual contact with real patients in non-existent.  Margarete, a quick study, has learned well from the former doctor and, intuiting that Lucius is in way over his head, tactfully teaches him surgical skills and patient care.  Inevitably, they fall in love and are separated by the chaos of war.  The wartime hospital scenes are horribly convincing.  Even though a not all of the action takes place in the winter during five years the book covers, even the scenes set in high summer make the reader feel cold.  The setting in the borderlands between warring countries is very interesting in and of itself.  Recommended.  318 pp.