Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Saga, volume 8

Saga vol. 8 by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples, 152 pages

Eight volumes in, and there's not much I can say about this story without major spoilers for those who haven't read the first seven other than: YOU SHOULD READ THIS SERIES! (Unless you're a kid. Wouldn't recommend it for kids.) If I want to be nitpicky, this particular volume is a bit too on-the-nose with its politics, which could have been handled much more elegantly. However, the story's still good and, as always, Fiona Staples' artwork is phenomenal.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Offspring, by Jonathan Strong



This 1995 short novel is by a favorite author of a friend of mine, who knows the writer through university connections.  I would like to say I found it as good as he evidently did, but I was not as impressed.  Linc and Izzy have been sweethearts since they were twelve and at age twenty moved in together.  One could call them hippies, for want of a better term, although they fetch up in a rather shabby but still suburban home with their three sons.  They have never bothered to get married, to the despair of their parents and siblings.  The eldest son, Obadiah, is approaching his teenage years and he and his close-in-age two brothers, Malachi and Zephaniah, are considered odd by their peers.  They are encouraged by their parents to read instead of participating in sports or getting interested in computers. They spend their after school hours in the basement, digging a tunnel.  Are they trying to escape, or just hide from the unfriendly world?  Or none of the above?  The school psychologist is worried.  Then a rash of vandalism hits their school and the boys come under suspicion.  Okay, but not great, and if you want to read it, you might have to borrow my friend’s copy since it is not widely available.  225 pp.

I can't breathe

I can't breathe: a killing on Bay Street / Matt Taibbi, 322 pages

This book recounts the life and death of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by police using an illegal choke hold for the crime of selling illegal cigarettes.  But this book does not paint Eric as a saint, or as a sinner, but as a man who tried, a man who loved his family and was proud of his kids.  A man who wanted to be a good father and husband but did not always measure up.  At a younger age, he had dealt drugs and served time thus effectively limiting his options before he had a chance to even understand the results of his actions.  He was a funny guy, and had a command of numbers and sports statistics.  He was well liked.  After his death, his daughter Erica became a well-known activist who tried to get justice for her father's death.  This book was published before her tragic death early in 2018.  I wish there was no need for books like this.  Taibbi does a good job of showing the big picture, delving into the legal system, policing and bigger policies that affect all of us but not as tragically as Eric Garner. 

Pale rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, by Laura Spinney



I read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale horse, pale rider, a fictional account of her own near-death from influenza, when I was a teenager.  Since then, I have often wondered why the influenza epidemic of 1918 is barely represented in other literary and artistic creations.  Sweeping around the globe in about a year – and carried back and forth on troop ships towards the end of WWI – it infected one in three people on earth and killed 50 – 100 million people, or 2.5 – 5 % of the population.  World War I “only” killed 20 million soldiers and civilians.  How can this have gone so unnoticed in works of art and the historical document?  This is just one of the many topics that the author takes up in this fascinating and timely book.  Our current flu season is in progress and the flu shot is at most 30% effective on this outbreak of the H3N2 version of the virus, Spinney’s book explains the facts and theories behind how flu viruses mutate and spread, how animal reservoirs of the disease affect human disease, and why different flu seasons seem to disproportionally affect different age groups (it seems that you are most immune to the first flu type you are exposed to regardless of future experiences with the illness, and therefore will always be more resistant to whatever virus your age cohort first ran into).  She points out at the beginning of the book, “When asked what was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century, nobody answers the Spanish flu…. There is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow or Washington DC.  The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively.  Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.”  Well-written as well as informative – recommended.  295 pp.

The beautiful mystery, by Louise Penny



This is the first of this series, number eight, that has no connection to the charming village of Three Pines, nor its amusing cast of eccentric characters.  That said, it is just a good as the previous books, even without vicariously sitting in front of a cozy fire enjoying a cup of hot chocolate.  Oh, but there are chocolate covered wild blueberries….  Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to a remote monastery deep in the Quebec woods.  There a group of 24 monks spend their days working in silence at the tasks that keep their order fed and sheltered and gathering to sing Gregorian chants as the day progresses from Vigils to Compline.  The order, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, is all but unknown to the outside world, including even Rome.  It’s founder fled from various persecutions and established this safe haven centuries ago.  However, a CD of their chants has been released to the world and gone viral, threatening their obscurity, and now murder has intruded – the choirmaster is found dead in the abbot’s private garden.  Working entirely within the confines of the monastery and its orderly days, Gamache finds comfort in the chants, while Beauvoir chafes under the monotony of both the day and the music.  Also, Beauvoir is concealing a secret, he is in a serious relationship with Gamache’s daughter, Annie.  When Gamache’s arch nemesis, Superintendent Francoeur shows up, ostensibly to check on the investigation, things become really interesting.  Up to Penny’s high standard, and a lovely exploration of Gregorian chant as well.  373 pp.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Faith Fox

Faith Fox / Jane Gardam, 375 p.

By the author of the Old Filth trilogy, this was first published in 1996 and was re-issued this year by Europa editions.  The title character, Faith, is a beautiful newborn baby throughout the course of this novel, so her actions are limited to the standard baby's repertoire.  It's the kooky adults in her orbit that make up the story here.  Faith's mother Holly is a cheerful, busy, well-loved force of nature, and her death (on page one) in the delivery room sets in motion a chain of events both moving and very funny.  Faith's father feels a little too busy to deal with her, her grandmother is too traumatized, her uncle too spiritual, her aunt too mysterious, and for a while Faith's fate lies in the hand of the Tibs, a group of Tibetan refugees living at a commune run by her Uncle Jack.  It all sounds dreadful, but in Gardam's telling it is sweet and absorbing. 

Madonna in a Fur Coat

Madonna in a Fur Coat: a Novel / Sabahatin Ali, 200 p.

First published in the 1940s in Turkish and just now available in English.  Raif Efendi is an inexperienced young man from the Turkish provinces whose family sends him to Berlin to study German in preparation for taking over the family business.  One night in a Weimar-ish sounding cabaret, he falls in love with the enchanting singer, and a tale of woe ensues.   Referred to by The Times as "...moving and memorable...".

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 236 pages

I always like a good whodunnit, and Christa's review had me putting this book on my to-read list. To recap the story, book editor Susan Ryeland is reading the latest installment of the Atticus Pund mystery series when she discovers the book is incomplete and that the author, Alan Conway, has died, supposedly by suicide.  The missing chapters cannot be found on his computer.  Additionally, as Ryeland tries to track down people who might know what happened to the missing chapters, she realizes that there are certain similarities between Conway's life and his book.  Could clues in his story help determine whether Conway really killed himself?

The book-within-a-book is clever, and the tones of each "book" were different, adding to the authenticity of the experience. 

Sourdough

Sourdough by Robin Sloan, 259 pages

Lois Clary is a programmer for a San Francisco-based robotics company when someone gives her a sourdough starter kit and then leaves town. Despite the fact that she's never cooked anything EVER (seriously — her diet consists largely of a slurpable nutrient drink called Slurry), she finds a cookbook and teaches herself how to make bread. Soon, she finds herself baking a top-notch sourdough loaf that lands her a place in the weirdest of farmers' markets. But the really odd thing is her sourdough starter, which doesn't behave like a normal starter; no, this one takes on weird shapes and colors...and sings.

This is a wonderfully quirky book, mixing the kinda-sorta possible with the eh-not-really possible with the unbelievably real (the Lois Club? Yeah, that one's real.) It's fun, it's light, and it makes me hungry for bread.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Field Guide to the North American Family

A Field Guide to the North American Family, an illustrated novella by Garth Risk Hallberg. 127 pages

This is a strange little book. It has an attached ribbon bookmark, as if it were a bird book or a Bible. Some pages are made to appear bent, smudged or doodled upon. Two families who are neighbors on Long Island are discussed in out-of-sequence snippets, alphabetized by headings such as Guilt, Infidelity, Innocence, Rebellion. Each right-hand page has a photo that purportedly helps to illustrate the heading of the prior page, but the photos often seem to add obscurity instead.

Although the book is short and the snippets are brief and incomplete, an aura of drama about these families emerges, a storyline is sketched in.  I was moved, even though I didn't really want to care.

Hunger

Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay  306 pp.

This book was a hard one for me because so much of it hit home and not in a good way. The author tells the brutally honest story of being gang raped as a child and then eating herself into obesity in hopes of making herself into someone no one would hurt like that again. Instead she faces other hurts and insults because of her size. There is much about her relationship with food. She also details all the ways in which society and even her own family does not know how to deal with large/obese people whether it's in the attitude that fat people are lazy (At age 43, Gay has multiple degrees, teaches at colleges, and has written several books among other things -- hardly a lazy woman.), chairs that don't fit, airplane travel, or the medical profession that looks at people's weight before their symptoms of illness/injury. I found myself saying "OMG, yes" to so much of what she said. This book was blogged earlier by Patrick and Christa.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, 245 pages

In her debut collection of short stories (and one novella), Machado presents us with haunting and slightly supernatural tales of women and their inner thoughts. The stories range from a writer at a creepy artists' colony to a sales clerk that discovers something disturbing in the dresses at work to a LONG story inspired by the actual episode titles of Law and Order: SVU. My favorite, however, was the first one: "The Husband Stitch," which uses the scary stories and urban legends I grew up with to create the story of one woman's life. These stories are inventive and unsettling, and something about them reminds me of George Saunders and Kelly Link (though perhaps a bit more somber).

Spy of the First Person

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard  82 pp.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor, Sam Shepard died in July of 2017 due to complications of ALS. He began working on this book a year earlier, first writing by hand and then recording his words for his family to transcribe. Before he died his friend, Patti Smith, helped him with editing. It was published posthumously. The book is a collection of vignettes and short chapters that comprise memoir, commentary on his condition, and observations of "the man in the rocker on the porch". The man Shepard describes is actually himself dealing with the gradual physical deterioration caused by his disease. The memoir parts are random and interspersed in the observations of the "porch man". This is a touching, if somewhat confusing effort of a talented man at the end of his life. (Note: the cover photo is not of Sam Shepard.)

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 3

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 3, audiobook read by Stephen Fry  208 pp.

This part of the set contains the twelve stories published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. About half were unfamiliar to me. The most significant story in this collection is "The Final Problem" in which Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty battle and apparently fall to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Conan Doyle intended this to be the end of the Holmes stories as he wanted to write other things but the demands of the public led him to create more Holmes stories. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

It's all relative

It's all relative: adventures up and down the world's family tree / A. J. Jacobs,  343 pgs.

Hey cousin - I would like to recommend this book to you. And yes, after reading it, I'm pretty sure that we are cousins.  A. J. Jacobs spent a few years learning about his family and it turns out that is pretty much all of us.  Much like his earlier work, he delves into something and answers many questions that you will have as you read.  As always he uses his own personal foibles to guide him on his quest for information and understanding.  Sure, you can look up and see how closely you are related to really smart, beautiful and/or famous people but then you might find much closer relatives in serial killers so be careful what you with for!

Jacobs decides to have the worlds largest family reunion...an event he plans over a year.  Does it end up a successful event? Hard to say but if the hosts stress level is any indication, it was at least memorable.

Fun stuff including an index with many good resources for your family tree project!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, 352 pages

In the near future, Lauren Olamina lives in a small, walled community outside of Los Angeles. But this isn't the kind of fancy gated community we're used to; no, this one is walled and insular to protect the residents and homes from thieves and arsonists that would take and destroy their meager pantries and closets. When the fire and robbers finally break through the walls, Lauren and two of her neighbors flee to the north, where they hope to find paying work, shelter, and drinkable water. Along the way, they pick up some traveling companions that find interest in Lauren's new religion, Earthseed, as well as her innate vulnerability as a hyperempath — someone who uncontrollably feels the same physical sensations as those around her.

I'd call this book "post-apocalyptic," except that nothing apocalyptic has happened; rather, it's the gradual degradation of society, government, and environment that created the situation in which we find Lauren. It's a world full of disconnected politicians, abject poverty, drought, price-gouging, gun culture, and apathy to human suffering. It's scary, and haunting, how prescient Butler was, publishing this book nearly 20 years ago. It's beautifully written, and somehow full of hope, and I highly recommend it.

The Last Apprentice

The Last Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, 344 pgs.

This was an AWESOME book that my son recommended. The story was entertaining, funny at times, exciting, suspenseful, and overall an easy read. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The almost sisters

The almost sisters by Joshilyn Jackson, read by the author, 342 pages.

Leia Birch Briggs is a comic book writer and artist.  Her signature characters are Violet and Violence.  She is working on an origin story but has writers block.  Part of the problem is all the other stuff going on in her life.  Her grandmother is suffering from a form of dementia, her step sister's marriage is falling apart, and she is pregnant after a one night stand at a comic con.  It sounds a little crazy but hold on, there is more.  In an effort to avoid spoilers, I will say this is a modern story of the South, with a little mystery thrown in along with some family dysfunction.  The author does a wonderful job with the audio version which I enjoyed immensely.

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 2

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 2, audiobook read by Stephen Fry  307 pp.

This section encompasses the dozen short stories contained in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These are some of the more well known stories because many have been turned into films or television episodes. It also contains a few of my favorites from the canon: "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League", and "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle". Arthur Conan Doyle hit his stride in these stories and the character of Sherlock Holmes is given more depth than in the previous short novels. Of course, Stephen Fry's reading of the stories is excellent. 

December totals

Pretty sure this is actual footage of Patrick as he zooms past
all of us to the top of the leader board.
Christa  15/3710
Jan  2/726
Kara  11/3927
Karen C  9/2913
Kathleen  6/2198
Linda  3/1199
Patrick  63/20,587

TOTAL: 109/35,260