Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Trick

The Trick by Emanuel Bergmann, 375 pages.

Two parallel stories, one of the Great Zabbatini, a Jew performing in a European circus as World War II looms, and the second concerning a ten-year-old boy name Max in present day California. While the story of Zabbatini, his childhood, his fleeing towards the circus and his time trying to pass as a Persian magician while living in Nazi Germany was well done. The present day story lacked a  single sympathetic or likable character, Max and his parents seem not to posses a single redeeming feature between the three of them. Zabbatini is still haunted by the war, but this haunting manifests itself in his being a giant asshole to everyone he meets. The plot never really clicks either, Overall, not my favorite.

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, 305 pages.
Reynolds is a fascinating writer and his book length poem about a boy seeking to avenge the death of his brother is sad, moving and skillfully written. Will knows where his brother Shawn kept his gun. After Shawn's death, Will retrieves the pistol and boards the elevator to go out and seek his brother's killer. At each floor, as the elevator descends, Will is visited by someone from his past. I listened to the audio version of this book which is also narrated by the author. Really an excellent book (or audio).
One of the books I bought for teen gifts this past Christmas.


Florida by Lauren Groff, 288 pages.
Groff's brand new book of short stories is excellent in every way. Her characters are delicately drawn portraits of people in unusual circumstances. "The Midnight Zone" tells of a woman who insists her spouse leave her and their two young children at a remote cabin, with no car, despite a panther sighting in the area, and despite her self-described lack of competence. Her descriptions of injury and treatment are wickedly funny.
The account of the hurricane in "Eyewall" is intense and otherworldly, and the young woman struggling to find out who she is and where she belongs, in the story "Above and Below," is maybe the best of them. All of the stories in this collection shine.

Obama: an intimate portrait

Obama: an intimate portrait / Pete Souza, 350 pgs.

Lovely photos of a lovely memory...a president who seemed to like people.  Pete Souza has compiled a beautiful collection.

The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, 151 pages
Charles Thomas Tester, living in  1930s Harlem,  recounts his journey from a hustler who is acquainted with the magic in and around the city, to a vengeful man at the nexus of the supernatural in New Yourk. As Tester grows closer to the center of the magic in New York, and closer to the Sleeping King, he adopts the title name, a name originally offered in insult. Along the way, as he learns more about the worlds around him, Tom fights with other New Yorkers seeking  power and with corrupt police. I really enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to reading the author's much-acclaimed The Changling.

Fever Dream

Fever dream / Samanta Schweblin,  translator Megan McDowell, 184 pgs.

A young mother is in the hospital dying and a local neighbor boy is sitting next to her talking to her and questioning her about her illness, its origin and what she remembers.  It is unclear what is real and what is the fever dream of the woman who is suffering.  At first it is even unclear when this is taking this woman young or is she old but remembering a time when she had a young child. Either way, we listen to Amanda as she answers David's questions.  He wants to find out when she noticed the worms.  But to get there, we hear the story of her interaction with David's mother Carla and the details of her fateful final few days.  This is a pretty amazing book that you should plan to read in one sitting if possible.  Once you start, you will not want to stop.

Total cat mojo

Total cat mojo: the ultimate guide to life with your cat / Jackson Galaxy, 383 pgs.

A comprehensive guide to all the cat secrets...ok, many are not secrets.  Straight forward advice to making your relationship with your cat better, managing cat problems and inter-pet relationships.  Galaxy covers a lot of topics and makes sense of a lot of cat behaviors.  The most important takeaway "There is no such thing as disciplining your cat."  My experience tells me this is spot on advice.

The Afterlife of Stars

The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes, 243 pages.
The relationship between Robert and his older brother, Attila is the heart of this book.  Attila, four years older, is angrier, funnier, and smarter than Robert. Robert's narrating this book, looking back to the time when he was 9.7 and Attila was 13.8, as their Jewish family fled Hungary and the Russian army in 1956. The boy's parents still have fresh wounds from the war and from the Holocaust which had killed many of their relatives. It's and interesting book and Attila is a great character, with his oversize sense of adventure and his half-mocking words of endearment towards Robert, "my tiny brother," mon petit chou," "my pumpkin loaf." There are a lot of strong moments in the book, but the ending is a bit of a disappointment, and the narrator's voice, sometimes a child of nine, sometimes an older man looking back, is a little uneven.

The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning

The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning: how to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter / Margareta Magnusson, 118 pgs.

The author describes herself as "between the ages of 80 and 100" then tells of the Swedish practice of döstädning aka "death cleaning."  The idea is to go through your stuff and get rid of what you can instead of leaving a big mess for someone else.  She advocates starting on this early so as to not "age out" on our capability to finish the job.  There are many general hints here, mostly nothing brand new or earth shattering but said in such a wonderful way, you really fell compelled to keep reading.  One point is that you should get rid of things that might upset your heirs.  My favorite quote "Save your favorite dildo - but throw away the other fifteen!" Of course this might also apply to letters, diaries or other documents that would embarrass your descendants.  Good suggestions told in an entertaining way, an appropriate gift for anyone who has asked you to be their executor. 

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 312 pages

A toddler escapes the man who has murdered his family, and finds refuge in a nearby graveyard, where the dead take it upon themselves to care for this young boy. The boy, who is given the name Nobody Owens by his ghostly caretakers, grows up in the graveyard, learning questionable school lessons from long-dead teachers and how to haunt from other ghosts. It's an unlikely story in every aspect, but, as he does with so many stories, Gaiman crafts it wonderfully, sprinkled with details that make this impossible tale seem so real. I particularly liked listening to the audiobook, which Gaiman reads himself, lending an extra element of wonderfulness to an already excellent tale. This was a winner for my whole family.

Binti: Home

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor, 164 pages

*Spoiler alert for those who haven't read Binti (which you really should do).*

A year after leaving her family for Oomza University, Binti is struggling with PTSD brought on by the horrific space voyage that took her to Oomza, as well as the conflicting feelings of being Himba with a bit of the alien Meduse. She believes that the best thing would be to return home for her pilgrimage, a coming-of-age ceremony for the women of her tribe. But that means seeing her family again for the first time since abruptly leaving, and, of course, nothing goes as expected.

This is an excellent follow-up to Binti, continuing to explore the nature of humanity, of family, of tradition and identity. It's simply written, but with vast amounts of substance percolating just beneath the surface. I can't wait to read the third novella in this series.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Chefs, drugs and rock & roll

Chefs, drugs and rock & roll / Andrew Friedman, 467 pgs.

An interesting history of the American restaurant and cooking scene mostly from the 1970's and 80's.  Friedman did a LOT of interviews and uncovered the ideas behind "American" cooking as it intersected with classical French cuisine and the fresher ideas of people who wanted food prepared in a more simple manner and ingredients that were fresh and maybe locally sourced.  This is, perhaps, too much of a simplification but lots of people were breaking out of old molds and trying new things.  Many with great success, at least for a time.  Being a great chef and having a dedicated following doesn't always translate into financial success. The business aspects aren't always strong in many whose talents focus on the creative aspects.  Don't look for recipes here, this is about the people behind the movement.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

This Is What Happened

This Is What Happened by Mick Herron, 261 pages

When the story begins, rookie spy Maggie is midway through a midnight mission in an office building. It's a tense situation, and the tension doesn't let up even afterward, when Maggie is interacting with her handler. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that everything is not as it seems. This is a quick-moving, high-tension book that keeps you guessing. I enjoyed it, though I would have loved to see just one or two more chapters tacked onto the end, as I'm REALLY CURIOUS about what happened after that last page. But alas, I'll just have to speculate on my own.

Prairie fires: The American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser

This rich and fascinating biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, explores not just the intertwined lives of these two women, but the history of the times and places that shaped them.  Beginning with Laura’s parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the book spans the period from the Civil War to present day.  Having read the Little House books as a child, and thankfully having missed most the subsequent TV series (being a jaded teenager at the time – even though Michael Landon, in his first year or so of portraying “Pa Ingalls” did serve as the Grand Marshal of our local “pet parade”), I was interested in learning more about the author of these beloved and influential books.  Not surprisingly, life was more complicated than portrayed in the stories, and so was the history of their writing.  Both women, and Laura’s husband, Almanzo, lived to ripe old ages. They were literal survivors of difficult lives.  Rose, the Wilder’s only child (a son was delivered stillborn before her birth) led a colorful and troubled life, full of world travel, journalism, sketchy relationships with a series of “adopted” young sons, and grandiose building schemes.  She was a staunch libertarian cut from the same cloth as her contemporary, Ayn Rand, and a well-known author in her own right long before her mother began writing her children’s books when she was in her sixties.  Just how much of the Little House books is the unadulterated version straight from Laura’s pen, and how much was “edited” by Rose has long been controversial.  Fraser explains the convoluted way that the books were developed giving full credit to Laura’s genius as a storyteller and memoirist, but also to Rose, who helped shaped them for publication.  We recently drove through Mansfield MO, where Laura, Almanzo and occasionally Rose, lived for the latter parts of their lives in the home called “Rocky Ridge.” The town of Mansfield, like so many small rural towns in the state, is just a wide spot in the road, but we had a nice lunch across from the town square.  The copyrights of from the Little House books, which were left in Laura’s will to the branch library there (named for her), eventually passed to the last of Rose’s “adopted sons,” Charles MacBride.  In the end, after litigation in the 1990s, the small Laura Ingalls Wilder branch of the Wright County Library System only received a $875,000 settlement – I well remember the case and the then-librarian, Carrie Cline’s, hope that the library would prevail.  625 pp. (includes copious notes)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Flying in Place

Flying in Place by Susan Palwick (1992), 179 pages

When we first meet Emma, she's married with a small daughter. Her daughter had gotten into some of her papers before her husband could prevent it. The papers were letters that Emma had written to her older sister, Ginny, who had died at age 12, before Emma was born. Explaining the letters to her husband brings the story back to a time when Emma was experiencing her father's early morning visits to her bedroom.

Sworn to silence by her father, who told her that her mother would die if she knew, Emma is on her own. Her strategy for coping with her father's sexual abuse turns to out-of-body experiences. While hovering near the ceiling to avoid her father, she finds her dead sister there.

Meanwhile, the rest of Emma's life remains tough--her mother is a hard-nosed English teacher at Emma's middle school, and is critical of most people (including Emma), and Emma's father, in addition to being abusive, is an egotistic surgeon. It doesn't help that Emma's excess weight makes her feel insecure, feeling that she's always being compared not only to her peers, but to her dead sister, who was quite thin.

Emma's angst and wall-building makes it difficult for others in her life to sympathize with her, but it seems realistic for a child handling sexual abuse. I'm just not sure about the out-of-body experiences, though...

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, 495 p.

Our March read for the Classics Book Group, this title received a unanimous thumbs up from the group. Covering a wide range of settings, from revolutionary Mexico to 1930s Texas to interwar Europe, each title offers something new.  There are stories featuring the recurrent character Miranda, a stand-in for Porter from a genteel southern family fallen on hard-ish times. My favorites include the famous Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a newspaper reporter's grim encounter with Spanish flu, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, and Noon Wine.  Two stories, He and the extraordinary Holiday, feature characters with cognitive disabilities; these are sensitive, moving stories and were almost certainly ahead of their time. 

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho  167 pp.

I read this many years ago and this time listened to the audiobook version read by Jeremy Irons. This brief story is about a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who sets out on a journey to visit the Pyramids where a recurring dream told him he would find treasure. On the way he gains and loses fortunes, falls in love, faces the dangers of warring tribes, meets a king and an alchemist, and learns his treasure is back where he started from. Santiago's journey is about listening to your heart. Irons does a good job of presenting the story. I found it interesting that in a few parts he sounded quite a bit like Neil Gaiman.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The dogist puppies

The dogist puppies / Elias Weiss Friedman, 303 pages.

My advice to you is don't look at this book unless you are wanting to adopt because there are so many adorable photos that you will WANT ONE NOW.  I should avoid books like this since now I want 10 or 12.


Lagom: the Swedish art of balanced living / Linnea Dunne, 160 pages

Another example from the countries of how to live your best life.  This from Sweden, lagom roughly translates into "just the right amount." In other words don't overdo things or under do things to achieve a balance that will make you happier in the long term.  This book advocates for balance, simplicity and moderation.  Topics covered in this book include work-life balance, food and drink, health, friends, the planet and the management of "things."  Swedish design is well know for simple lines and not exactly "minimalism" but less is more.  I like the idea of Friday night relaxation.  I like the idea of keeping it all together and doing what you can but not more than you can. I see that there are at least 2 other new books about this same topic.  Not sure that I need to read another one but the ideas here seem reasonable.

Dark Matter

Dark matter / Blake Crouch, 342 pgs.

Instead of doing a summary here, I will just point out that Kara already said it better.  And now there are a few things that might be spoilers but that make me wonder about this book.  If you meet yourself "coming and going" by traveling through multiverses, you would think that you would have a pretty good idea of your personality.  In this book, there were some major differences between these people that seem unlikely.  I mean, I know they have had some different the ones that are from 15 years apart, I can see it.  But, there are a BUNCH of Jason Dessens  who forked only  a short time ago.  How can so many of them default to murder?  And there is some evidence that there will be more coming.  How is this a logical option?  But I can get past all this because, despite problems, the book kept me interested. It was a real thriller.  I didn't want to put it down until I was finished with it, even if the ending was not entirely satisfying.  So what?  I even found myself explaining the plot at length to my husband who has done research into the concept of multiverses and has produced an art project exploring the idea.  If you can't stop reading a book and you talk about it with other people, it makes it a winner on my list.

Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, 463 pages

Jane is a young woman adrift: her closest relative, Aunt Magnolia, died a few months back, and Jane dropped out of college, yet still works at the campus bookstore when she's not building artistic umbrellas in her tiny bedroom. That's Jane's life when the ridiculously wealthy Kiran Thrash stops by and invites Jane out to Tu Reviens, the Thrash family mansion that sits on its own private island, and turns Jane's world... well, not upside-down, but perhaps on a roller coaster that spins and makes breakneck turns at random. Cobbled together from seemingly random architectural styles, Tu Reviens is more than it seems, and one decision makes all the difference for Jane's future.

This book is more than a little odd, and I'm still mulling it over. I love Jane's umbrella artistry, and Jasper, the resident basset hound at Tu Reviens, but I felt like the multiple, non-intersecting storylines were a disservice to the secondary characters, all of whom had the potential to be fully formed and three-dimensional, but instead were little more than fancy window-dressing. Same goes for the house itself. I loved Cashore's earlier Graceling trilogy, so I had high hopes for this one. Sadly, it didn't quite measure up.

Full Wolf Moon

Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child  244 pp.

I've read a number of novels by this author in conjunction with Douglas Preston, most notably the Pendergast series. I have also read books written by Preston alone. This is the first one of Child's I've read. It is one of a series featuring Jeremy Logan, a self-described "Enigmalogist" who investigates seemingly explainable phenomena to find their causes. In this episode, Logan checks into a camp for artists and writers in the Adirondack Mountains to complete work on a scholarly paper. He is enlisted by a former college classmate turned park ranger into investigating mysterious brutal murders with the appearance of wild animal attacks in the area. A suspicious and reclusive local family are suspected of being werewolves but local law enforcement is focused on a man who was released from a mental institution supposedly "cured" after committing a bloody murder. Logan eventually solves the mystery but not before there are more deaths. Intriguing but not as good as the author's collaborations with Preston.   

Lady Fortescue Steps Out

Lady Fortescue Steps Out by M.C. Beaton  152 pp.

Widowed Lady Fortescue has fallen upon hard times as have others of the aristocracy in the Regency Period in England (early 1800s). In desperation she steals a pair of silver candlesticks from her nephew but gets caught leaving the nephew to think her getting senile. A chance meeting of Colonel Sandhurst, who collapses from hunger in front of her begins an ingenious enterprise. The pair gather others in the same difficult straits and they open a hotel named "The Poor Relation" in Lady Fortescue's large home. The hotel becomes a success much to the consternation of the snooty relatives of the owner/managers. Romance blossoms, disaster strikes and they all live happily ever after . . . or at least to be in further books in the series. A fun, light read from the author of the Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin Mysteries.


Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards  527 pp.

This biography of Queen Mary of Teck, wife of Great Britain's King George V, begins with her summons to Balmoral Castle by Queen Victoria. Things were in motion for Mary (aka May) to be betrothed to Victoria's grandson Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy. The engagement was short lived due to Eddy's death from influenza. During the period of mourning May and Eddy's brother, George, now heir to the throne, became close and were ultimately married. Upon the death of King Edward VII, George was crowned George V and May his queen consort. Of all the royals of the past century, Queen Mary was the epitome of a queen, always impeccably dressed and draped in jewels, tall, with a regal bearing. She was Queen through World War I and the public relations change of the royal surname from the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. After her husband's death came the royal crisis of the abdication of Edward VIII (David) and the coronation of George VI (Bertie). Queen May stayed in contact with her exiled son but the relationship was a chilly one at best. Queen Mary lived through a second World War and got to see her granddaughter Elizabeth crowned before her death in 1953.

Personal note: My father had little respect or interest in the European royal families and often made disparaging remarks about how uneducated they were. But he had an uncharacteristic respect for Queen Mary who he referred to as "Good Queen Mary."

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Odyssey

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, 582 pages.
Wilson's new translation of this epic poem is eminently readable and enjoyable. Her introduction explains the poem, its history, its inconsistencies, and the probable history of Homer; not necessarily one poet from one time but a mixture of poets and transcribers over the years and centuries. She says of The Odyssey and The Iliad that, "[t]hese are written texts that display the legacy of a long oral tradition. In important ways the poems are a patchwork."

A great version of a timeless work, one that shows how people's ideas of hospitality, warfare, marriage, and faith have changed and stayed the same. Okay, mostly changed, raiding, the sacking of cities, killing, and raping, aren't considered heroic anymore, but even in the time of Odysseus it was considered somewhat rude to murder all of your guests.
Wilson's Iliad is still years away, but I can't wait. Meanwhile, it's time to go and reread Fagles and Lombardo and maybe explore an older translation or two.

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories

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

Machado is very exciting author to read or to listen to. The stories in this collection are weird, artful, and amazing. "Especially Heinous" gives an odd, disjointed, disturbing view of the popular TV show Law and Order: SVU. Episode titles are followed by synopses that give a fun-house-mirror continuity to the show, with alternate characters, absurdly grisly crimes, and victims that literally haunt the officers. "The Resident," tells of a writer who must defend her work against verbal attacks, self-doubt and mutilated bunny corpses. The author plays with your sympathies and expectations masterfully.
Reading this shortly after I read Saunder's Tenth of December gave me such a sense of happy wonder at the writers and their store that we are lucky enough to encounter.

Tenth of December: Stories

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders, read by the author. 251 pages.

What a collection of wonderful, weird stories. The opening story, "Victory Lap," feature so much internal monologue, even when all the characters are there together in a particular scene  that it's somewhat dizzying. I read this, or rather listened to it, after reading Lincoln in the Bardo a couple of times, and loving that.  I was still somehow surprised at how weirdly beautiful all of these stories were. Saunders is a great writer and each of these stories are well-crafted gems.


theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh, 1660 pages.
Long, and maybe intricate, maybe gnarled and knotted, this interwoven serices of narratives, conversations, reports, and transcriptions frequently involve characters named "M," Matt, Matthew, or McIntosh, just like the author. M's father is dying. One character has a beautiful wife, but is having an affair with his neighbor's high-school aged daughter, while he endlessly works on a mysterious book, but he remembers none of this. I found it fun and readable, but endlessly confusing. I have before read 1200 pages of a book and thought "there's only about 450 pages left in this book, I hope I figure out what the book's about soon" (I did not figure it out). Reminiscent of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves if not in style, then at least in it's sense of typographical playfulness, with pages of pictures from old movies and pages of asterisks and other typographical symbols alternately moving the story along and adding to the confusion. Fun to read if you don't mind non-linear,experimental, or just plain odd fiction.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (2015) 308 pages

I don't usually read short story collections, but I found Trigger Warning to be well worth my time, with several vivid stories that can't help but be stuck in my head, often because of their surprising turns. The selections are a pot pourri of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales re-jiggered, and detective. Included is a Dr. Who story called "Nothing O'Clock." As I read the story, I felt as if I were watching an episode of the show. It turns out that Gaiman has loved the Dr. Who television series since he was a small child and eventually wrote episodes for it.

Gaiman's intro to Trigger Warning is every bit as good as one of his stories, starting with a discussion of the definition of trigger warning. Gaiman wondered if people would ever put a trigger warning on his fiction, and then decided to do it himself with the title he chose. It's a good warning to have, since these stories can go any which way! I also appreciated his brief write-ups of every story/poem, enjoying a glimpse of the background behind the selections.

Rabbit Cake

Rabbit Cake / Annie Harnett, read by Katie Schorr

Elvis is twelve and has a love of science just like her mother.  Her mother, unfortunately, sleep walked into the river and drowned.  Elvis, her sister Lizzie and her dad are still trying to work their way through the grieving process.  Her school counselor tells her it will take 18 months.  Elvis isn't certain her mother died accidentally. She isn't certain that her teenage sister is going to make it since she too sleep walks, sleep eats, and seems to be making lots of bad choices.  She is certain that her mother was not faithful.  She is able to keep learning about the biology of animal sleep in hopes to finish the book that her mother was writing when she died.  Elvis has a great way of looking at things and is observant in the way of a kid who isn't always sure what she is seeing.  This book sounds sad, and it can be but it also funny, sweet and memorable. The audio book read by Katie Schorr was wonderful.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 6: His Last Bow

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 6: His Last Bow read by Stephen Fry  308 pp.

This section comprised several short stories from Holmes' past and "The Last Bow" which puts Holmes into a spy story involving four years of British intelligence that has been gathered to be taken to Germany. After that episode Holmes retires to take up beekeeping and write a definitive book on investigation. The other stories are the usual whodunits involving Italian criminals, stolen plans, a missing person, poisonings, and one where Holmes is apparently near death but still gets his man. I've enjoyed listening to this set of audiobooks and I hope that eventually Audible will get the rights to the last part that is only available in Great Britain.

Easy Soups from Scratch with Quick Breads to Match

Easy Soups from Scratch with Quick Breads to Match: 70 Recipes to Pair and Share / Ivy Manning, 176 p.

The title here says it all, and in this case, delivers on its promise.  A wide range of soup varieties with reliable instructions are on hand; my favorites were tortellini chicken soup with seasonal vegetables (extremely easy), egg and lemon soup with toasted orzo and kale, creamy wild rice and turkey, and beef barley with lots of veggies.  I really appreciated the quick bread pairings, too. I am not much of a baker and a recipe that calls for yeast is generally a recipe I won't use, but this is book full of quick breads which use baking powder or soda and only occasionally call for yeast.  At my house we liked potato rosemary farls, featherlight herb dumplings, pimento cheese biscuits, and best of all, everything rye muffins.

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreason, 227 pages

What a quirky mix of fantastical stories Andreason has presented here, in his debut collection! From dropping a crate of old men into the ocean (so they don't burden their families with dying at home) to a bizarre baptism ritual to a porn star's obsession with the never-landing, always-swooping Rocketboy of her home city to the everyday life of headless Jenny and her put-upon brother, these stories are marvelous. I honestly did not know what I would find when I turned the page, though I was never diasppointed.

Andreason manages to capture the true reactions and emotions of each story's participants in situations that most of us onlookers would find horrific. Take, for example, the titular story, which finds a former naval vessel and its crew slowly sinking in the grasp of a many-tentacled sea creature. The crew has been in this situation for months, and their annoyance and boredom and slowly unraveling psyche comes through loud and clear. I absolutely loved this collection, and I can't wait to read more by Andreason.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Unbelievable: My front-row seat to the craziest campaign in American history / Katy Tur, 293 pgs.

Katy Tur took the assignment to follow a Republican candidate that everyone thought would wash out quickly.  She debated canceling her upcoming vacation but assumed this would be short lived and might give her some interesting opportunities.  535 days later she was at the victory party, exhausted and sick of using dry shampoo.  Along the way, she was witness to the oddest campaign in American history.  A candidate with no political experience and perhaps no interest in the job had no problem energizing the "base" and holding successful rally after rally.  Subjected to threats that required security towards the end of campaign, one supporter actually spit in her face after finding out she was a member of the media.  The book recounts a wild ride that lasted much longer than anyone expected. A great read for anyone interested in campaigns or journalism.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, 341 pages

In his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter is determined to solve the mystery of who (or what) is roaming the school, attacking students at random. Everyone knows it's the Heir of Slytherin controlling a creature that lives in the Chamber of Secrets, and while everyone has their guess about who the Heir might be (some even think it might be Harry himself!), whoever it is has been mighty sneaky. This isn't my favorite of the Harry Potter books (blame the giant spiders for that), but it's fun and adventure-filled and I loved sharing it with my daughter. We particularly enjoyed giggling at the antics of this year's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart.

Friday, March 16, 2018

This is what happened

This is what happened / Mick Herron, 261 pgs.

Maggie gets recruited to be an informant for the MI5.  She is in the middle of a mission installing software on a machine at a company controlled by Chinese interests.  She is caught by a security guard and detained.  She pulls the fire alarm and escapes but on the way out kills the guard. Mi5 puts her in a safe house.  But time passes and the world changes.  What is going to happen to Maggie?  The story shifts to her "handler" and we find out things aren't actually what they seem.  The story shifts again.  In the end, it is all revealed but along the way you just have to follow along as best you can.  A lot of questions are raised by a story like this.  A decent thriller.

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 477 pages

Editor Susan Ryeland has just been given the latest Atticus Pünd whodunnit by her cash-cow author Alan Conway, and immediately settles in to read the book. But just before the killer is revealed, the manuscript ends. When she tries to find the missing pages, she learns that Conway has died suddenly, thrusting her into a mystery of her own.

In Magpie Murders, Horowitz has created a book-within-a-book, a mystery-within-a-mystery, each as compelling as the other. I feel like I'd just read two books when I closed this one: the Agatha Christie-esque Atticus Pünd, and the more modern "real" mystery of Alan Conway's death and missing chapters. In doing so, Horowitz manages to both poke fun at and pay homage to whodunnits. I had a great time with both of these stories, and I highly recommend it to mystery readers.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Meditation for fidgety skeptics

Meditation for fidgety skeptics a 10% happier how-to book / Dan Harris and Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler, 287 pgs.

A follow up to Harris' book "10% Happier" that recounted his adoption of a meditation practice after he had an on-air panic attack.  This book answers a lot more questions about how to go about making meditation a "thing" in your own life.  Jeff Warren is the master meditation teacher and Dan is still a hard charging news anchor who doesn't want stuff to get too treacly.  Put them together with a team on a rock and roll rental bus and see what happens!  They travel across the country trying to introduce meditation to the masses.  Part bromance, part science project, part travel memoir, this book will really make you feel like you should give meditation a chance.  I enjoyed listening to the audio book that is read by Dan and Jeff.

So much blue

So much blue / Percival Everett, 242 pgs.

Kevin is an artist who has been working on a painting for a long time that he won't let anyone see.  He wants to be sure nobody EVER sees it and tries to arrange a system by which it will be destroyed when he dies.  In this "present day" scenario, Kevin lives with his wife Linda and their two kids in what seems like an overall happy family existence.  Another part of the book follows a 1979 visit by Kevin and his friend to El Salvador in search of the friend's brother.  The country is falling into civil war and the trip is engulfed in fear and tragedy.  They help dig a grave for a little girl who has been killed by the military.  The horror of what they witness affects Kevin and the trip also leaves him with another personal secret that makes him question the very basic of his personality.  In a third time, 10 years prior to the "present day," Kevin is in Paris for an art opening and has a brief affair with a much younger woman.  He admits to himself during this fling that he has never loved his wife Linda but instead was looking for a place to exist when they married.  He believes he loves this young French woman and at the same time, Linda is in the States worrying that Kevin has started drinking again.  I've done a mediocre job here of summarizing the book but I enjoyed it very much.  Everett has a way of making us feel we really understand Kevin's inner workings.  I'm inclined to praise Everett's writing and ability to make us want everything to be all right with Kevin while we satisfy our voyeuristic tendencies while watching him veer towards becoming a train wreck.

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Dear Fahrenheit 451: love and heartbreak in the stacks: a librarian's love letters and breakup notes to the books in her life / Annie Spence, 244 pgs.

A librarian writes to books, books she loves and books she doesn't like so much.  Some are long term favorites, others have come and gone.  I like the way the author gives us a little insight into her thinking and a little view of her life.  I know it is the librarian in me who thinks this is a great book but it really is a great book.  I'm not going keep a list of her favorites and add them to my list because I plan to consult this book regularly in the future.

All for Nothing

All for Nothing / Walter Kempowski, trans. Anthea Bell, 343 p.

An elegant, intriguing chronicle of the flight of an aristocratic ethnic German family living in East Prussia in January 1945.  They live dreamily in the Georgenhof, the ancestral estate, meeting neighbors and hangers on, asking, "Do you think the Russians will really come?  What is to be done?"  Rapidly and yet subtly, their lazy upper-class idyll devolves into violence and terror, as hundreds of people begin to stream west in an attempt to make it back home to the Reich.  Kempowski in no way excuses these characters, who went along with the Nazi regime in an indifferent, almost dopey manner, but he humanizes them, a powerful and enlightening trick.  In its wide cast of eccentrics, thieves, and martyrs, portrayed in objective and frequently comical thumbnail sketches, the novel reminds me of the Canterbury Tales.  Lots of talking and very little progress.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 5: The Valley of Fear

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 5: The Valley of Fear read by Stephen Fry  320 pp.

The Valley of Fear was the last stand alone Sherlock Holmes novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this mystery Holmes received a coded message from an agent of the infamous Professor Moriarty. By the time he decodes the message and learns that he must go to Mr. John Douglas at Birlstone Manor House, Mr. Douglas has already been murdered by an unknown person with a shotgun blast to the face. The victim bears an unusual mark on his arm, branded there years before. Suspicion falls upon a house guest but there is not enough evidence to prove it. The twist at the end makes this one of the more enjoyable stories. 


Poorcraft: The Funnybook Fundamentals of Living Well on Less by C. Spike Trotman, art by Diana Nock, 166 pages

OK, I've found my new go-to graduation gift. This slim volume is chock full of money-saving tips on all aspects of life, from housing to health insurance to getting around town. There are even lists of the basic tools that should make up a toolbox and kitchen gear that's necessary to get cooking at home (and recipes!). Trotman packs a lot of text in, sometimes overpowering Nock's art, but really there's nothing that I would edit out. This is a reference that everyone who's starting out on their own should have on their bookshelf.

Modern Retro Home

Modern Retro Home : Tips and Inspiration for Creating Great Mid-Century Styles / Jason Grant, 255 p.

Gorgeous photos and some fun design ideas.  Can't really see putting much into practice, but fun to page through.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Start Without Me

Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman (2017), 276 pages

Adam is a recovering alcoholic who was invited to his family's Thanksgiving gathering across the country eight months after going through rehab, and he thinks that his family expects him to fail. After arriving at his parents' home in the late evening, he flees from it in the early morning after accidentally breaking the coffee pot, expecting that they'll blame it on a relapse. He returns his rental car and is eating at a hotel restaurant near the airport, planning to skip Thanksgiving with his family after all.

Marissa, a fight attendant, has just finished working an overnight shift and is struggling with whether to secretly abort her fetus, the result of a fling with an ex-boyfriend, and pretend all is well with her husband, the son of an extremely wealthy senator and his antagonistic wife. She is expected to arrive at the in-laws' home in time for a photo shoot (for the senator's annual mailing) and Thanksgiving meal. Meanwhile, Marissa's been estranged from her own mother for 5 years in an attempt to escape the ravages of her mother's own alcoholism. She's at the same hotel restaurant as Adam, getting coffee to prepare for her long drive to her husband's family mansion.

Initially, I thought that the set-up for the novel took too long, but later I appreciated the care taken by the author. Over the course of a very long Thanksgiving day, Adam and Marissa travel together, learning about each other and buoying each other up, but also sometimes getting extremely annoyed by each other. When their respective family members make their appearances in the story, we get a better sense of the difficulties they've experienced and their need to figure out what comes next in their lives.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, 266 pages

A train traveling between Istanboul and Paris gets stuck in the snow. Usually this would be an inconvenience to passengers making connections, but it is something significantly more inconvenient when one of the passengers turns up dead. Suddenly, everyone on the train is a suspect in the murder, which renowned detective Hercule Poirot decides to solve while they await rescue. This is a classic story, and an excellent one. This was my second time reading it, though the first sharing it with my son, who gamely suffered through my butchering of several French phrases to experience his first Agatha Christie. We both loved sharing our guesses throughout the book, and we loved the big reveal that showed just how wrong we were. It is the first of many many Agatha Christies in our future.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Late Show

The Late Show / Michael Connelly, read by Katherine Moennig, 436 p.

Detective Renee Ballard works the night shift, where she is forced to begin cases but never allowed to finish them, as she is forced to turn her work over to the day shift every morning.  Ballard is highly skilled but has been exiled to the night shift because of a sexual harassment complaint filed against a supervisor.  But Ballard refuses to let go of two cases that begin on the same night, one involving a night club shooting that killed five people, and another involving the brutal beating of a transgender prostitute.  Ballard is a terrific character - a former Hawaiian, she unwinds every morning by doing some intense surfing while her loyal dog, Lola, waits for her on the beach.  Moennig's reading voice tracked perfectly with the character, making a thoroughly enjoyable listen.


Antigone / Sophocles, various translations, 101 p.

Greek drama from 5th century BCE and read by the classics book group.  Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta, defies King Creon and demands a proper burial for her rebel brother Polyneices.  The price for her demand is high, but she refuses to back down, thereby becoming one of literature's first female badasses.  Hooray!

Kristin Lavransdatter 2 and 3

Kristin Lavransdatter 2: The Wife and 3: The Cross / Sigrid Undset, trans. by Tiina Nunnally, 861 p.

The remainder of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, following The Bridal Wreath, was indeed more enjoyable via the recent translation by Tiina Nunnally, as I had hoped it would be.  Part two sees Kristin through the births of her many children and the terror, illness, grief and joy that accompany that process.  Throughout, medieval Norwegian politics become important; Kristin's noble but rash husband Erlend becomes embroiled in a succession plot that turns out disastrously, with lasting repercussions for their marriage.  Part 3 shows us Kristin's sons growing to adulthood; each young man is a distinct, believable and interesting character, and each impacts the marriage between Kristin and Erlend.  For my money, this is possibly the best, truest picture of a marriage I've ever read in fiction.  The trilogy ends as the Black Death makes its way across Europe and arrives on Norway's shores.  Undset won the Nobel Prize; now that I've finished the trilogy I have no trouble understanding why.  A tremendous work.


Cane / Jean Toomer, 245 p.

 A classic of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a wonderfully weird combination of prose, poetry, drama and song, which evokes small-town rural Georgia in the 1920s with a gorgeous vividness.  The writing, in all forms, is sensual - that is, it constructs the setting in a way that incorporates all the senses, almost as if the reader could taste the air. 

Difficult to summarize, the work incorporates the author's experiences as a light-skinned urban northerner who moves to Georgia to teach.  One of the members of our Classics Book Group observed correctly, I think, that the poetry is especially strong, as in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire:"

whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes

telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan  328 pp.

Lydia "Smith" works at a bookshop near the Denver train station. When one of the store "regulars" a.k.a. the "BookFrogs" hangs himself in an upstairs room he leaves his meager personal possessions to his favorite bookseller, Lydia. Lydia soon finds herself in a mystery sparked by Joey Molina's puzzling items that were meant for her to find and figure out. She is shocked to discover a connection to her previous life as Lydia Gladwell, the young survivor of a bloody unsolved crime. What starts out as a simple story of a tragic friendship evolves into a full blown mystery with multiple victims and suspects. The author uses flashbacks to Lydia's childhood to expand the suspense. I picked this up because I enjoy stories involving bookshops and stayed for the mystery.