Thursday, May 31, 2018

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven Zipperstein, 261 pages.
The 1903 pogrom in a not-so-remote Russian town became a much larger story than other racially charged massacres of that time and place. Communications had sped up, and Kishinev was close enough to Europe that reporters could make their way there.  The stories that came out of the violent episode varied wildly. The town's newspaper publisher, apparently one of the main authors of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and, obviously, a raving anti-semite, helped fan the flames of local rage by spreading rumors of blood-libel. Michael Davitt and Hayyim Nahman Bialik were sent in to cover the pogrom by Jewish newspapers, but Bialik ended up composing a poem that became one of the most enduring accounts with his poem, "In the City of Killing.",
Zipperstein debunks the long-held myth that the Jews of the town were too passive to fight back and tells the story of 250 people who gathered and fought off their neighbors over the course of the three-day pogrom.

Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony

Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony by Jan Morris, 111 pages.
Brief, lyrical ode to the largest battleship ever built. The Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato, larger that the German battleship Bismark, much larger than the HMS Prince of Wales, and much larger than the Iowa class battleships of the US Navy, like the Missouri, displaced some 72,000 tons, was some 840 feet long. It's 18 inch guns, the largest ever built, were larger than allowed by treaty and could fire these massive shells over 26 miles. Unfortunately for the ships officers and crew, the Yamato ended its run as the battle for Okinawa was starting, sent out with a small escort and no air-cover against the US Navy and its carriers and their air wing. The Yamato became a graphic display of the end of the age of battleships. An interesting book.

Bluebird, Bluebird

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, 307 pages.

Darren Matthews, nephew of one of the first black Texas Rangers, and now a Ranger himself, is having some problems. His wife is upset with his career decisions, he's drinking too much, and he is currently under a semi-suspension for some questionable (to his superiors, anyway) actions. When a friend from the FBI calls to tell him about the killing of a black man in a rural Texas town, one that was quickly followed by the killing of a white woman, Darren hurries down to investigate. He quickly becomes aware of Aryan Brotherhood activity surrounding the case, and the whole thing becomes more complicated when he meets Geneva Weeks, and the dead man's widow. An interesting and exciting read.

Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller, 393 pages.
Miller's retelling of Greek myth and story from the point of view of the title character, the sorceress and witch, best known for her part in the Odyssey.
Circe, the daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and Perse, the nymph daughter of the Titan Oceanus, tells of her early years as a powerless nymph, seeking favor with her father, but at odds with her sorcerer siblings, Aeetes, Pasiphae, and Perses. Circe's explorations in magic, both for love and revenge cause her to be exiled to the island of Aiaia, and that's where she performs her best know tricks, pigs and such
In her telling, with her careful weaving of the known stories and the unknown bits behind it all Miller shows herself to be among the smartest, craftiest, and just the best of us. An inspiringly good story.

Ghost Boys

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, 214 pages.
Jerome is often bullied at school, but lives in a loving home where his parents try to keep him safe. An encounter with a racist, frightened police officer ends his life and begins his time as a ghost boy. African American children who had been killed out of fear or hatred of who they are. Jerome is tutored by Emmett Till, and in turn stays around to help Sarah, the daughter of the policeman who killed him learn to help her father.
An engaging book, not too raw to be suitable for middle-schoolers.
Includes an afterword, discussion questions, and further resources.

The Wall

The Wall Ilan Stavans, 123 pages.
Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College, has written a number of novels, graphic novels, and works of nonfiction. He is quite a poet too. The poems in this collection, few in number, but deep and wide-ranging, cover walls (sure its right there in the title), borders, the barriers between brothers (though I think that whole brother thing was a metaphor for some of the other points that it took me a while to understand).
ALTO!
My
brother
and
I
grow up:
as
adults,
we
are
selfish,
venal,
even
mercenary:
suspicious
of
one
another

Really worth reading and exploring.

Lessons on Expulsion: Poems

Lessons on Expulsion: Poems by Erika Sanchez, 73 pages.

I read Sanchez's award-winning (award-nominated?) Young Adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter a little while ago, and it was good. The poems in this collection though, which explore many of the same themes and issues, the conflict between parents and children, between different cultures, sexuality and guilt, are even better. Sanchez's language is raw and beautiful and she paints vivid painful pictures. An excellent, excellent book. Plus a cool cover.

Too Famous to Live Long

Too Famous to Live Long by David Linzee, 272 pages

After years as a journeyman performer, mezzo soprano Renata Radleigh has finally landed a costarring role in Thelma & Louise: The Opera, which will have its world premiere at the St. Louis Opera. But the production is mired in controversy from the beginning, with a big-name Russian conductor — whose private life is as scandalous as his public ties to the Kremlin — drawing protests wherever he appears. And just five days before Thelma & Louise's premiere, the conductor is killed in the most operatic fashion. While Renata and her beau, Adams University PR hack Peter Lombardo, attempt to catch the killer, the SLO is dealing with an onslaught of controversies, from who will replace the late conductor to who will play Thelma, as an old rival reappears at just the wrong time.

This is Linzee's third Renata Radleigh book, and I very much enjoyed it. I don't read many mysteries, but I really enjoy these. Renata's a great character, the behind-the-scenes-at-the-opera bits ring true, and I would DEFINITELY buy a ticket to see Thelma & Louise as an opera. Do yourself a favor and check out these books by U City's own David Linzee.

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips


A lengthy epistolary novel set within a frame tale.  Ralph Trilipush is an Oxford-educated Egyptologist from Harvard who has convinced the wealthy father of his fiancĂ©e, and some of his somewhat shady friends, to finance an exploration to find the tomb of the perhaps mythical King Atum-hadu.  His belief in the actual existence of this king is based on a few fragments of papyrus discovered while he was stationed in Egypt during the First World War.  Reaching from Australia in the late 1800s, to Egypt during and after the war, and into 1954, the main action takes place in the last months of 1922, when Howard Carter was on the verge of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the same area Trilipush where hopes to find his king.  The plot is too intricate and complex to even attempt to summarize, and half the fun of this book is figuring out who is actually who and what has actually happened.  The other half is the witty writing.  As Trilipush meets with disaster after disaster in his quest, he spirals into a kind of madness.  Fame, fortune, and academia are all skewered.  With the St. Louis Art Museum hosting an exhibit of recent archeological finds from Egypt, it was particularly fortuitous to have this 2004 novel recommended to me.   Confusing at first, but rewarding as one proceeds.  383 pp.

The Nature of the beast, by Louise Penny


The tiny village of Three Pines in rural Quebec is so obscure that it doesn’t appear on maps.  The Internet does not reach there, and GPS doesn’t work. Then how did two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service arrive so quickly to help investigate the death of a young boy and the discovery of a giant weapon of mass destruction hidden deep in the woods?  That’s only one of many conundrums that former Chief Inspector Gamache, retired to the village, and his former team must answer.  The intrusion of global politics into this quiet milieu seemed a bit out of place to me, though I enjoyed the book, as I always do when in this magical place.  Imagine my surprise to learn that the existence of such a weapon was based on actual events.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  The novel is full of Penny’s wonderful characters and descriptions of their frailties and strengths.  I loved this bit about Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie:  "When upset, Reine-Marie like to chop, to measure, to stir. To follow a recipe. Everything in order.  No guessing, no surprises….She was four courses upset and considering an amuse-bouche.”  376 pp.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Secret Book and Scone Society

The Secret Book and Scone Society by Ellery Adams  290 pp.

In a small North Carolina spa town called Miracle Springs four women become unlikely amateur detectives. Nora owns the town bookstore and provides her own form of biblio-therapy to the tourists visiting the spa. Hester runs the bakery and makes custom made "comfort" scones for people. Estelle runs the local beauty shop. June works at the spa in the hot springs pool. All of the women have some secret from their past that they eventually reveal during the course of the story. The death of a visiting businessman is soon followed by the death of one of his business associates. The amateur sleuths uncover shady goings on in the town but not before one of them is accused of murder. The main characters are nice, if a bit bland, and the plot is fine. However, too much of it is far fetched and unbelievable. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

The index card

The index card: why personal finance doesn't have to be complicated / Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack, 245 pages

Encouraging words for people who need to get their personal finances in order.  The idea that it is overwhelming prevents many from thinking about it or doing anything about it.  These simple rules fit on an index card.  The rest of the pages give you hints on how to get the rule to work for you and personal stories, many about the authors.  It doesn't help to put it off.  I makes sense to start ASAP.  Good solid suggestions for the beginner that may never move past the beginner stage...and that is just fine.  I imagine this would be a great graduation gift.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

An American Marriage

An American Marriage / Tayari Jones, 308 pgs.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds and mostly on the same page but still fight quite a bit.  Roy is going down the path of a success in business and Celestial is becoming a respected artist.  They have only been married for a year when the unthinkable happens.  Roy is accused of a crime and ends up in prison.  Celestial knows he is innocent and the system is broken.  They are looking at twelve years apart.  This book follows their relationship as Roy begins serving time and Celestial is trying to get it together on her own.  Several years into his sentence, Celestial moves on and finds comfort with Andre, her childhood friend and literally the boy next door.  Andre originally introduced Roy and Celestial so he is also dealing with a lot of baggage.  After five years in the slammer, and two years after Celestial renounces their marriage (but never divorces him) Roy wins his appeal and is released.  Can Roy win Celestial back?  Can Andre keep her?  An interesting tale of how life can be unfair.  Although I'm inclined to point out the societal issue of falsely accusing a black man, the real story here is the interaction of the characters, major and minor and learning about their thoughts.

Down the river unto the sea

Down the river unto the sea / Walter Mosley, read by Dion Graham, 322 pgs.

Joe King Oliver is a PI who used to be a cop.  He was setup on a bogus charge that landed him at Rikers Island where he was put in solitary to prevent other prisoners from killing him.  90 days later, charges were dropped but he could not go back to the force and his wife, who didn't stand by him, is out.  Ten years later, he is a private investigator but still a broken man.  He lives for his teen daughter and is doing an ok job of keeping it together.  When a young attorney comes to him for help, he sees a way to discover who set him up while helping another with a "bad cop" problem.  With a cast of interesting supporting characters, this is standard for Mosley which means better than most others.  Dion Graham's narration adds a lot to the story.

Ether

Ether: the death of the last golden blaze / Matt Kindt, art by David Rubin, 136 pgs.

Scientist Boone Dias travels through a portal to a fantasy land of Ether.  He does not believe in magic and struggles to find fact based answers to all the fantastic experiences he has including solving a murder.  Ether is where he spends most of his time but we get a glimpse of his earth life when he heads home for nourishment and is basically a crazed homeless guy when viewed through the eyes of his fellow humans.  Fabulous art and a story that will be resolved in future volumes.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, 521 pages.
Zelie lost her mother during the Raid, when all of the practicing maji, the wielders of magic, in Orisha were killed by King Saran's men. The maji, their powers signified by their white hair, had been the rulers of Orisha throughout history and Saran feared them and their power. His quest to completely eliminate the maji threatens Zelie, her brother and her father. As Saran's plans unfold, his daughter Amari and his son Inan must decide where their loyalties lie. Overall, a great YA adventure story.

Failure is an Option: An Attempted Memoir

Failure is an Option: An Attempted Memoir by H. Jon Benjamin, 256 pages.
Books by comedians are a weakness for me. If I enjoy the author's other work, ususally stand-up or comedic acting, then I want to read their funny little memoir even though I know that I am likely to be disappointed. This time I was pleasantly suprised. Benjamin, the voice of the title characters in both Archer and Bob's Burgers, is a clever and competent writer. He is very funny too. in this attempt at a memoir, Benjamin chooses to work thematically, linking episodes and milestones in his life to specific failures on his part; flaws in his character. He is, as I have mentioned, funny about this. He's not apologetic, and often offers bits of his philosophy of failure to encourage in others. He says early on, "this is a polemic in favor of failure. It's an assertion that failure is an option, and even, at times, a viable prescription for a better life".
Like many comedic memoirs, we're not getting a whole lot of personal details, unless they're funny bits of failure; there are (I presume) bunches of lies. But it is all funny. Benjamn's tales of failing at every aspect of life, from abandoning a sleepover during childhood, to watching tv at his neighbor's while the house was being robbed, to curling up in a ball instead of participating in a three-way while at college are all hilarious.

Addendum: Christa pointed out that I somehow missed the car-pooping scene in the book and I have corrected that. I think that I am prone to passages in books that are poop-heavy, and for that I will not apologize.

Void Moon

Void Moon by Michael Connelly, 391 pages.
Connelly, best known for his police thrillers featuring Detective Harry Bosch, and his legal thrillers featuring attorney Mickey Haller, put together this intriguing and entertaining heist novel back in the waning years of the last century. Cassie Black, on parole from a Los Vegas casino job that went horribly wrong, is working at a Hollywood Porsche while trying to get her life back together. A sudden change in a secret (not that secret, it's telegraphed, but not talked about in the beginning of the book) from her old life threatens her long-range plans, and forces her back to a life of crime. She's trusting people from her past, people who know how much she lost. Some of them are on her side and some not so much.
A well-thought out plot, interesting characters, and great storytelling make this an enjoyable read. Michael Connelly, who writes a couple of excellent Bosch and / or Haller novels a year, could have been right up there with Elmore Leonard if he had the time and inclination.

Jewish Comedy: A Serious History

Jewish Comedy: A Serious History by Jeremy Dauber, 364 pages.

Dauber's history of Jewish Comedy has some hilarious moments in the first third of the book, and the author tells some hilarious jokes, but it is, as the title indicates, a little more serious than that and slows down and sobers up. An interesting read.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Personalities

Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Personalities by John A. Shivik, 2017, 190 pages

Author/biologist John Shivik writes animatedly (pun intended), beginning with animals he has known and characteristics that made them special to him. He also informs us that animal research was set back 100 years because of a biologist who decreed in 1896 that studying animal personalities was plain wrong. Until recently, researchers who indicated that animals had personalities would be considered to be "unscientific, wishy-washy, and subjective sentimentalists." That attitude has now shifted. Shivik's book compiles recent studies, some quite impressive, based on their length of time and the number of animals studied, about how animals can be categorized into Myers-Briggs personality groups and then followed to learn more about them. Just a small sampling of animals studied this way: spiders, bees, fish, bats, dolphins, cougars, elephants, monkeys.

Not only do animals have varying characteristics that comprise personality, but different personality traits provide diversity to their populations, which in turn helps species survive.

This very readable book has a useful index and is extensively foot-noted in case one wants to know more about the studies Shivik describes.


Barracoon

Barracoon: the story of the last "Black Cargo"/ Zora Neale Hurston, read by Robin Miles, 196 pgs.

Cudjo Lewis was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston in 1927.  Lewis was the last living African who had been brought to America as a slave.  Born in 1841, around 1860, he was brought to America many years after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was legally abolished.  Lewis lived as a slave until emancipation following the Civil War but had no money for a return trip to Africa.  Hurston returned many times to continue her conversations with Lewis.  He told her of life in Africa, life as a slave and live after slavery.  This is a remarkable account of an amazing life.  Narrator Robin Miles does a wonderful job with the audio book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Bridesmaid's Daughter

The Bridesmaid's Daughter: From Grace Kelly's Wedding to a Women's Shelter -- Searching for the Truth about My Mother by Nina Gyles  and Eve Claxton  265 pp.

Carolyn Scott was one of the early models with the famous Eileen Ford Agency in the 1950s. While living in the Barbazon Women's Hotel in NYC she met and became friends with budding actress and model, Grace Kelly who would become Princess Grace of Monaco. In this book her daughter chronicles Carolyn's life which went from Steubenville, Ohio to a successful career, a marriage and motherhood, to mental illness that rendered her homeless in spite of those who tried to help her. As these types of stories go, it is tragic. As these type of books go, this one was underwhelming.