Monday, April 30, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place: a Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley  363 pp.

Twelve year old Flavia and her sisters are at loose ends because of a recent family tragedy and sister Ophelia's postponed wedding. Her father's loyal servant, Dogger, takes the three girls on a boating trip to try to improve their moods. But this wouldn't be a Flavia de Luce story if there weren't at least one dead body involved. Flavia manages to hood her hand into the mouth of a floating corpse which starts her off on her latest investigation. The dead man is the son of a local vicar who was found guilty and hung for poisoning three of his parishioners. What is the connection between the deaths, mysterious townsfolk, and a threat against Flavia's life? Bradley manages to include all the usual characters but this story is mostly Flavia's thoughts and ponderings. For whatever reason, the story seems weaker than previous ones in the series. It is still a fun read despite a sense that something is lacking.

Hank and Jim

Hank and Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman  367 pp.

Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart met when they were young actors just starting out. They developed a friendship that lasted in spite of their many differences. Their friendship 4relied more on proximity than conversation. They were happiest just being with each other, frequently not even speaking, making model airplanes and kites, or reminiscing about their days as struggling young actors. Both were very affected by their military experiences that neither discussed; Fonda in the Navy in the Pacific Theater and Stewart flying bombing missions over Europe for the Army Air Corp. The two were wildly different in many ways. Stewart married once at the age of 41 and remained married until his wife's death, Fonda married five times. Fonda was liberal politically while Stewart was very conservative. Stewart had a loving and involved relationship with his twin daughters and stepsons but Fonda's relationship with his children was a prickly one at best. That these two men stayed so close, even during the times they didn't see each other for months or even years is fascinating. Eyman used archival material and interviews with the Fonda and Stewart families and friends to flesh out the story of these two different men who were both legendary actors and devoted friends.

Head On

Head On by John Scalzi, 335 pages

In the near future, nearly a tenth of the world has been diagnosed with Haden Syndrome, a disease that leaves their fully functioning brains locked into completely debilitated bodies. Thankfully, technological advances have made it possible for these "Hadens" to remain active in society through the use of "threeps," robotic vehicles that are remotely controlled by Hadens. And one of the ways these Hadens participate? Through the wildly popular Hilketa, a (for now) Haden-only sport that involves one team tearing the head off an opposing player's threep. When a player's actual body dies during a pro exhibition match, Haden FBI agent Chris Sloane is on the case, chasing clues down a rabbit hole of money laundering, doping, and marital infidelity, as well as a cat named Donut.

I loved Scalzi's Lock In, and this is an excellent sequel. Chris and partner Vann are great characters, and there are some great ethical questions that pop up in both books. I hope to read more of these in the future!

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, 210 pages

Edward Tulane is a china rabbit that is much loved by a little girl. But as so often happens with toys, Edward gets lost and then taken in by someone else. This book is the story of Edward's life, starting in the lap of luxury and wending its way through garbage dumps and shacks and an antique toy store. But it's also the story of Edward's emotional journey, as he learns to open his heart to others. My family listened to this audiobook on the recommendation of my 9-year-old son. I think he picked a good one. Highly recommended.

Stuart Little

Stuart Little by E.B. White, 131 pages

In this kid lit classic, mouselike Stuart Little is born to a regular human family, and tries to make his way in a world that is much, much too large for him. I recently listened to this audiobook on a family trip, and was struck by how episodic it is, as well as how abruptly it ends. I remember really enjoying this as a kid, though today I couldn't even hazard as guess as to why.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Leave me alone with the recipes

Leave me alone with the recipes: the life, art and cookbook of Cipe Pineles / edited by Sarah Rich et al.

Who is Cipe Pineles?  A glass ceiling shattering artist and graphic designer who worked as the first female art director at several magazines including Seventeen, Charm, and Mademoiselle . She was the first female member of the Art Director's Club of New York in 1943 and was the first woman inducted into its Hall of Fame.  This book is based on the discovery of a sketchbook of recipes that Pineles had started based on her mother's Eastern European Jewish heritage.  The recipes are hand written and illustrated and feature her mother as a steel-haired grandmotherly woman on several pages.  The discovery of this manuscript prompted the editors to learn more about Cipe and to update the recipes for more modern cooking methods and ingredients.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the fascinating woman and also liked the history behind the food.

The view from flyover country

The view from flyover country: dispatches from the forgotten America / Sarah Kendzior, 239 pgs.

A series of essays written by home town journalist and expert on authoritarian states.  Here we read about the shifting economy and the shifting political landscape that resulted in the election of Donald Trump.  When the fruits of your labor is a wage that makes it impossible to pay rent and often those in that situation are highly educated, there is little to keep people from looking for a way out.  In a section "The Post-Employment Economy" Kendzior details how employment has become a rich persons game.  After completing your degree that is historically more expensive than ever before, you can only gain employment by working several unpaid or ridiculously low paid internships.  Only the rich can afford to pursue these "opportunities" that include traveling to interviews and then staying in some of the most expensive places in the world.  One internship at the United Nations ended up in a charity auction and garnered a bid of $22,000.  Yes, paying for the opportunity to work for free in hopes that it will lead to something that pays some day.  In academia, tenure track jobs are being replaced with "adjuncts" that get paid several thousand dollars a class.  Their total pay is often below $20,000 a year but it is the only way to have a chance at a tenure job.

Once I started, I could not stop reading this book but I recommend having something light on hand for your next read because this is nothing but heavy.

Montaigne in barn boots

Montaigne in barn boots: an amateur ambles through philosophy / Michael Perry, read by the author, 223 pgs.

Not familiar with Montaigne, I read this book because I've liked other books by Perry. This one is pretty great, finding intersections between the life of Michel Montaigne, a 16th century French nobleman and the author, a 21st century Wisconsin writer and family man.  Perry compares what he learned about and from Montaigne, with his contemporary thoughts and his personal history.  The audiobook is read by the author and it is a great listen.  Highly recommended.

Go ask Fannie

Go ask Fannie / Elisabeth Hyde, 294 pgs.

The three Blaire siblings meet back in their hometown to visit their father and evaluate situations.  Mostly, nothing has changed.  Oldest child Ruth is a hard charging lawyer in DC who still irritates her siblings.  George a nurse with commitment issues spends his time resenting Ruth and youngest, Lizzie is closest to Dad but just ending a relationship that was never terribly serious but took a turn for the worst.  Patriarch Murray is hopeful that his children can get along for an entire weekend but they disappoint him at every turn.  Then a discussion starts, the family talks about their shared tragedy when mother Lillian and brother Daniel died in an accident.  As the drama of the weekend unfolds, you learn a lot about the family and how each became who they are today.  Mostly a family tale with a few characters that irritate but see their way to becoming united.

Friday, April 27, 2018

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, 328 pages

For years, investigative reporter Michelle McNamara obsessively researched the crimes of the Golden State Killer, a man who raped and murdered gobs of people between 1976 and 1986 throughout California. She hoped that by reexamining the details of the crime scenes, the victims, the evidence, the massive pool of potential suspects, she might be able to help the cold-case detectives finally track down the elusive criminal. Unfortunately, she died in her sleep in 2016 at the age of 46 with the Golden State Killer still on the loose (it wasn't until earlier this week that investigators arrested a suspect). I'll Be Gone in the Dark is the story of McNamara's investigations, and her obsession, masterfully mixed with the stories of the crimes themselves. It's a fascinating and somewhat bittersweet story, particularly if you know ahead of time that she never got to see the fruits of all of that labor. Bonus points for the audiobook, which features wonderful narration by Gabra Zackman.

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond, 257 pages.

Essays on Trump, the 2016 election, and the odd turn our country has taken. Almond, a former journalist and the author of Candyfreak and Against Football, has written some compelling and some not-so-compelling essays on recent political events. The title of the book, Almond explains, indicates his belief that we tell each other bad stories, stories that are "fraudulent by design or negligence," or frivolous or "too frightening to confront." The essays in the book detail the different bad stories that we told each other that resulted in the Trump presidency. While his arguments make sense for the most part, I think that we ended up here, politically because, on the whole, we're not that bright.
Many interesting stories are told here. The second essay "The United States is a Representative Democracy," is a good read and a sobering reminder of the slave-holding genesis of our politial system. But Almond's assignment of blame to the New York Times for covering Comey's announcement that he was reopening the Clinton email investigation, while the paper failed to cover the emerging (but still not officially announced) Russia-Trump story seems a bit of a stretch. His assertion that John Stewart and the subsequent generation of political humorists are guilty of bringing this political Armageddon about because they didn't use more of their power to register voters and keep Trump from office also seems to overshoot the mark.
His assertion that this is a potentially end-of the-world scenario is, hopefully, overblown.
Almond frequently references Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and it does seem worth hunting that down and reading it.
Almond has given us an engaging series of essays that, while I don't completely agree with, are well worth the read.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez, 344 pages.

Another in the list of books that I am reading because they made it to the National Book Award shortlist, beating out two of my favorites from 2017, both of which only made it to the long-list.  Julia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is trying to get her life back on track and follow her dreams after the death of her older sister. She wants to go to college and become a writer. Her parents want her to aim for something they see as secure, a nice office job, maybe. They think the local junior college should be fine. They want her to be more of a good daughter, like Olga, her late sister, was.
The supporting characters are all well drawn and each of them deserve their own book. It does sometimes seem that they aren't content to be a part of Julia's story and want to tell their tale here and now. Between Julia's struggle with school, depression, her parents, her parents' backstories, boyfriends, and finding out the secrets her late sister was keeping there might be a little too much going on at once. While I appreciate the writing and the impressive scope, I fear I am not Y enough for this YA novel.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Corpse Reader

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido  494 pp.

This historical fiction novel is based on an actual person, Song Ci, who lived in 13th century China, and could well be called a father of forensic medicine. I have to admit, I only picked this book because it was a free audiobook offering from Amazon and lots of people gave it four stars. I can't be that generous. The parts that are murder mystery and forensics are fine. However, the rest of the story is akin to reading the Book of Job. One awful thing after another occurs in Ci's life to the point where I wanted to say "Enough already." Once the story moved to the Emperor's Palace where gruesome murders are taking place, the story improves greatly, although Ci is still subjected to horrible treatment from those around him. Unfortunately the not-so-great sections of the story outweigh the good parts. 

September Hope

September Hope: The American Side of A Bridge Too Far by John C. McManus  502 pp.

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery coerced General Dwight D. Eisenhower into dedicating the largest number of paratroopers to an ill-conceived assault on the Germans in The Netherlands in an effort to secure bridges and make a path through to Berlin. Montgomery's idea was that the European war would be ended by Christmas of 1944. What needed to be done first was to secure the Port of Antwerp and stop the German forces to the south of Antwerp. The 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions parachuted a record breaking number of men into the area where they were met with little support by the British ground forces. The result of this failed operation was the loss of many allied lives and ultimately the famine and starvation of 20,000 Dutch citizens in the Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) of 1944-45. This is another well researched history by Dr. McManus. The individual stories of various soldiers and officers come from primary sources. It is an easily readable volume. I listened to the audiobook and the narration was well done but it was necessary to access the maps to figure out where the action was taking place.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, 208 pages

In the final volume of Okorafor's Binti trilogy, our heroine is heading home to a war breaking out between the Khoush and Meduse, hoping to save the Himba people that are in the path. Binti is a master harmonizer, and is determined to use her abilities to bring a truce between the warring factions. But will she be able to end a war that has lasted generations?

Okorafor wraps up this coming-of-age, identity story with Binti realizing her full potential, which is something we as readers can strive for, even if we can't all reach it. I was a little thrown by a few things toward the end of the book, but all in all, I liked this series a lot. Highly recommended.

American by Day

American by Day: a Novel / Derek B. Miller, 338 p.

I enjoyed Miller's The Girl in Green and was delighted by Norwegian by Night, of which American by Day is a sort of spin-off, but not a sequel.

Oslo police captain Sigrid Odegard travels to upstate New York in search of her brother, an adjunct professor and sometime-drifter.  He's gone missing in the wake of the death (by murder? suicide?) of his lover Lydia.  On arrival Sigrid meets Sheriff Irv Wylie, master of divinity from Loyola, wisecracker in chief and a thinking person's lawman.  Together and separately they confront a tangled case involving Lydia's murdered nephew, a twelve-year-old black boy whose story is almost plagiarized from that of Tamir Rice.

Miller's bio is vague but hints at a former career in State, Defense, or, my guess, Intelligence, and he has an acute sense, on display in all three of his novels, of the way America looks when viewed from the outside.  Generally he puts his perspective to sensitive and dryly humorous effect.  I loved Sheriff Irv's banter, witty but not mean, and Miller writes intelligently about race.  Smart entertainment.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Advent of Dying

Advent of Dying by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie (1986), 242 pages

Advent of Dying is a Sister Mary Helen Mystery, a series written by a nun with a 75-year-old nun as the mystery-solving sleuth. Well, she helps solve each mystery, that is. In this story, Sister Mary Helen's inquisitiveness spurs her into learning pertinent information that helps police detectives Kate Murphy and Dennis Gallagher find out who murdered Sr. Mary Helen's secretary, Suzanne. Suzanne was a quiet but efficient young woman who had worked for Sr. Mary Helen for the past year in the alumni office at the Mount St. Francis College for Women. It seemed that Suzanne was finally on the verge of coming out of her shell when she was murdered after her first night as a singer in a bar. One of the problems in trying to solve her murder is that so little is known about Suzanne, including her family or anything about her past. Sr. Mary Helen digs up enough information to put herself in danger.

Can a story featuring an elderly nun (several, for that matter) include the full complement of action, logic, and suspense usual for a murder mystery? After reading two books in this series, I would say definitely yes!

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson, 342 pages

Comic book artist Leia Birch is experiencing a bit of writer's block when it comes to the prequel to her breakout graphic novel, Violence in Violet. Good thing she has plenty of other troubles to distract her. Leia's grandmother Birchie, matriarch of Birchville, Alabama, is beset with dementia; Leia's stepsister's picture perfect marriage is imploding; and, oh yeah, Leia herself just discovered she's pregnant from a one-night-stand with a Batman cosplayer at a comic con. As Birchie's last living relative, Leia heads to Birchville to attempt to manage the stubborn old woman and her stubborn best friend, as well as the rumors flying around the small town.

Even though I've never specifically in her shoes, there is something innately relatable about Leia as she struggles with taking care of the woman who spent her life caring for Leia, as she puts off telling people about her pregnancy, as she worries about the mystery man who fathered her child, as she deals with her type-A stepsister's meddling. This was a nice read that included some good racial insights, as well as plenty of unexpected nerdy references. 

Still me, by JoJo Moyes

After reading a couple of books of Serious Literary Fiction in a row where death was a main subject, I was delighted to discover that JoJo Moyes had written a third book about the irrepressible Louisa Clark.  Yes, death is very much present in her books too – the first in the series dealt with the assisted suicide of the disabled man Louisa had come to deeply love – but her wit, humor, and wonderful characters leaven the solemnity.  By the end of the second book, Louisa had forged a new relationship with Ambulance Sam, the paramedic who saved her life after a fall.  But the course of true love never runs smooth, and they are now in a long-distance romance since Louisa decides to take a dream job in New York City while Sam remains in London.  She has been hired as an assistant to the young second wife, Agnes, of Leonard Gopnik.  The couple live, with staff of course, in an elegant old apartment overlooking Central Park.  While he works, Agnes maintains her perfect hair, nails, wardrobe, and body, which is really her job.  At least once or twice a week, they attend charity events where the young Mrs. Gopnik is exposed to the stares and gossip of the society matrons around her.  She clings to Louisa as a friend, but one learns that the word has a different meaning for the rich.  Agnes, from Poland, reminded me so much of Melania Trump, that I couldn’t help but picture her in the role in a movie.  At one of these charity dinners, Louisa bumps into Joshua Ryan, who is a doppelganger of her lost love, Will.  He seems smitten.  Will Louisa be swept up by her new glamorous life and this up-and-coming New Yorker, or remain true to Sam?  For those who have read the previous books, you will be happy to learn that Louisa’s eccentric family remains a bulwark for her, and her grumpy sister finally finds happiness.  A frothy treat.  388 pp.

The afterlives, by Thomas Pierce

There seems to be a theme of dying dogs in my literary choices lately – see The friend, by Ingrid Nunez reviewed earlier.  In this case, it is more of a ghost dog, having died in the house that is now, many years later, a restaurant.  The protagonist, Jim Byrd, has also technically died at thirty-three from heart anomaly, but was revived and now kept safe by a technological marvel implanted in him called HeartNet.  He remembers nothing of the death experience, no tunnels of light, no long-lost relatives greeting him.  When visiting the restaurant, he seems to hear ghostly voices behind the wall on the staircase.  Wondering what, if anything, is beyond death, he researches the history of the house, and also finds a physicist who believes we are only 93% present in current time.  She is convinced she can put him, and his wife, Annie,  in touch with those who have died through a machine she has developed.  A strange and not completely satisfying book.  366 pp.