Saturday, June 30, 2018

Fascism: A Warning

Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright, 288 pages. Narrated by the author.

Secretary of State under President Clinton and currently a Professor of  Diplomacy at Georgetown University, Albright has written several books on political affairs and her role in them, now gives us a history of Fascism, from Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, to many of our modern fascists. She gives us several defining attributes of "this extreme form of authoritarian rule," and tells us that in the end it is the leader's actions and not labels that are important.
Chapters on Hitler's rise and fall, Stalin and the early Cold War, Milosevic, and Putin are all informative and make for interesting reading. Albright has a great perspective on all of this and it is well-written, and a great book to listen to, as well.


Barracoon; The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston, 171 pages.

Hurston, the famed author and folklorist, died in 1960 without ever publishing this account. which she wrote based on interviews with Cudjo Lewis in 1931. Lewis, born Kossolla, had been enslaved and brought to the United States in 1859 on the ship Clotilda. The importation of slaves had been outlawed in the United States fifty years before. In a series of interviews, Hurston gains Lewis's trust and talks to him about what her remembers of the country of his youth, his years as a slave, and how he has lived since the Civil War.

The Overlook

The Overlook by Michael Connelly, 225 pages. Narrated by Len Cariou.

The presence of so many of the Connelly novels in our Hoopla and Overdrive collections is good news for anyone who loves police-based thrillers, or fans of the Amazon series Bosch. 
This is the 13th in the Bosch series and part of the story is adapted to the TV show. The victim here is a doctor with access to some dangerous material while the TV version changes that to a porn producer. Maybe because the book is more of a story of its time, with the FBI and the police frantically searching for some international terrorist. The book moves along nicely. Harry locks horns with the FBI again, this time while breaking in a new partner. Cariou is always a great narrator, second only to Titus Welliver himself.

The Soul of a Thief

The Soul of a Thief by Steven Hartov, 293 pages.

Shtefan Brandt finds himself in the unusual and unenviable position of serving in the Waffen SS. As a young Jewish man (a Mischling, actually, son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father) this is not where he thought he would find himself. Brandt was working in a Viennese hospital when he was chosen to serve as the adjutant to a reckless, rule-breaking, war hero of an SS officer, Colonel Himmel. Rumors of his parentage haunt Brandt, and he has to hope that his false papers hold up well. Himmel doesn't care who
Brandt really is, just as long as he does his job. But when Brandt falls in love with the French mistress of the Colonel, he and the young woman find themselves in deepening jeopardy.

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi, 224 pages.
A provocative and engaging book about the state of affairs in Israel and the surrounding Palestinian territories from a man who has been a soldier, a reporter, and the co-director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Istitute, and who is the author of 2013's Like Dreamers. 
In a series of letters addressed to "Dear Neighbor," Halevi, an American-born Israeli who moved to Israel in the early 1980s, attempts to explain his, the Israeli, side of the story to his Palestinian neighbors, feeling that the inability to hear each other or to acknowledge each other's humanity is a large part of the continuing problem. Halevi presents his arguments for Israel's right to exist and balances this against what he sees as intransigence on the Palestinian side. His letters are unlikely to sway anyone firmly committed in their beliefs, but he does a good job of explaining the timeline, at least as seen through Israeli eyes.
Narrated by the author.

Magritte: this is not a biography

Magritte: this is not a biography / Vincent Zabus, art and colors by Thomas Campi, 72 pgs.

A man buys a bowler hat unaware that it was once owned by surrealist painter Rene Magritte.  When he dons the hat, he is transported into a surreal world where he is required to solve the mystery of Magritte before he will be allowed to remove the hat.  Through various interactions with guides and biographers, he learns about Magritte and his wife, their lives and influences.  In the end, he is confronted by Magritte himself who claims there are no answers before sending our protagonist back to reality.  A lovely little book that mimics Magritte's style and tells a bit about the artist in an"unbiography" fashion.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, 334 pages.

Westover tells the fascinating story of her life. She grew up on a mountain in Idaho, the daughter of two survivalist parents, who members of a very fundamentalist group of Mormons. Her father was a man driven to conform to the very narrow path that he believed God wanted him and his family to follow. The government in all its forms had a plan to control everyone, and school was a part of that plan, so Westover and her siblings were homeschooled. Well, not exactly schooled. More like left in a room with some books. Westover tells compelling stories of the hard work they did, helping their father scrap cars, buildings, and machinery, with her father making each job more difficult and more dangerous than it needed to be with his frantic energy and cost-cutting schemes. Cuts, minor amputations, falls, and explosions were all part of her young life. She also talks about her relationships with her siblings, all of them suffering under her father's strict rules. Westover's brother Shawn, bipolar, manipulative, and, to a degree, evil also made her suffer quite a bit. Westover makes some difficult decisions as she grows up, deciding to pursue an education that takes her from BYU to Harvard and to Cambridge. This path, and her confronting some of the realities of her family's actions strains her relationships with her mother and father.
A compelling book. Well-narrated by Julia Whelan.

The Lincoln Lawyer: A Novel

The Lincoln Lawyer: A Novel by Michael Connelly, 404 pages.
I have really been enjoying the fact that between Overdrive and Hoopla we seem to have the bulk of the works of Michael Connelly available on audio. While Titus Welliver and Len Cariou are among the best of all possible narrators, the others that you come across reading the Connelly collection are quite good, too.
This is the book that introduced Connelly's new character, Mickey Haller, back in 2005 and became a movie starring Matthew McConaughey in 2011. Micky Haller is a criminal defense attorney who advertises on bus stop benches, works out of his Lincoln Town Cars instead of an office, and has frequent run-ins with the California Bar Association. When he lands a wealthy client, a real estate broker, seller of exclusive Bel-Air homes, who has been accused of a heinous crime, Haller must figure out a way to get his client acquitted and keep himself safe. A good solid legal thriller.

Narrated by Adam Grupper.

The Brass Verdict: A Novel

The Brass Verdict: A Novel by Michael Connelly, 422 pages.
Mickey Haller retired from practicing law for a while after The Lincoln Lawyer incidents. It's a little vague in the beginning and I almost thought that I had missed a volume, but this is the 2nd in the Micky Haller series, or the 14th in the Harry Bosch series, since he shows up and investigates. Haller is named the attorney of record for a whole slew of clients when a lawyer with whom he sometimes worked is murdered. The biggest of these clients is a Hollywood producer who has been accused of murdering his wife and her lover. It is clear to almost everyone that the man is guilty. As Haller tries to find some way to clear his client he also tries to help in his late colleague's murder investigation. Well-paced and interesting to the end. Narrated by Peter Giles.

Lost Light: A Novel

Last Light: A Novel by Michael Connelly, 360 pages. Audiobook narrated by Len Cariou.

The ninth Harry Bosch novel finds Harry retired from the force. He has his private investigator's
license but instead of working for a client he decides to try and solve a case that has been bothering him for the last four years. A young woman had been gunned down during the robbery of a movie set. The director of the movie had felt it necessary to have actual cash on hand while shooting a scene involving a pile of money, leading to a series of violent events that left the young production assistant dead. While investigating, Harry runs afoul of an FBI terrorism investigation and finds himself, as a retired cop, with no leverage. Eleanor plays a part in the novel and Maddie makes her first appearance.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I am, I am, I am

I am, I am, I am: Seventeen brushes with death / Maggie O'Farrell, read by Daisy Donovan, 288 pgs.

An amazing account of seventeen near death experiences from the authors life.  The first one is coming across a creepy guy on a hike who she knows is not good news but ended up walking with him for a way and chatting manically.  Two days later, the guy ended up killing another girl on the trail.  Add in a couple of near drownings, a few illnesses, and a miscarriage that would not expel itself and you get an amazing story here of close calls.  This book sounds like a total downer but there are comedic parts and telling is so mater-of-fact, you can't help but be drawn in...I guess it also helps that you know she obviously does not die at the end of any of these stories. The audio book is excellent.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunder 343 pages.

I read this in 2017 and then listened to in in early 2018 for a book discussion group. I have to say that as good a read as this book is, and it is in the "very good" to "excellent" range, it is even better as an audiobook. With Nick Offerman as Hans Vollman, David Sedaris as Roger Bevins III, and the author as the Reverend Everly Thomas, the audio is a marvel. I listened to it about three times in succession because it was so good (and because I didn't have anything else to listen to on a long trip.
Here is what I said last year: Winner of the 2017 Booker Prize, Saunder's new novel is phenomenal read. When Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie died of Typhoid in 1862 the
president comes close to falling apart. Willie waits for him in the graveyard, ignoring the cacophony of voices around him. The graveyard is filled with the dead. Not just the bodies, but the spirits of those who have not yet fully departed, for one reason or another. We hear fascinating stories from these dead and witness weird scenes played out. I have not listened to the audio, but I hear that it's wonderful, with a great cast reading the book. Saunders has a magical style and I look forward to reading his backlist.

4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, 866 pages.

One of my absolute favorites from 2017, I read this one a second time for SB2017 earlier this year. The audio, with Auster narrating, is excellent as well.

Here is what I said last year:
A phenomenal book, really one of my all-time favorites. Strongly recommended for fans of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life (and, of course, A God in Ruins), David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas, and other literary works with a speculative edge.
this extraordinary novel opens with a joke a that tells how the main character's grandfather, Isaac Reznikoff became Ichabod Ferguson. The joke is repeated near the end of the book, and this framing, and it's accompanying explanation somehow tie together the four different lives of Archie Ferguson. The novel presents four different lives for Archie, four different paths that his life could take based on different decisions made when Archie was still young. Each chapter has four versions, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, etc. (chapter 1 actually has a 1.0, too, before the split)

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior, 239 pages.

Kendzior, a St. Louis-based writer and journalist, has built this informative and incisive book from her blog-posts and then from her earlier ebook. These columns are from 2012-2014, with the first version of the book published in 2015. So the columns themselves, while well-researched, on-point, and deftly presented seem to come from a kinder and gentler dystopian America. Kendzior has been busy of late doing book-release related activities, but we can hope that will soon be home to new work once again. A great writer for our troubled time.

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier, 411 pages. Audio narrated by Dorie Barton.
There's a lot of information here about Masters and Johnson, their lives, their research, and their relationships. I didn't know any of it except the bits that have entered the kind of "everybody knows that about sex" stuff, that apparently not that many people knew before their research.
I wasn't really aware that Masters and Johnson had done their research at Washington University (though I had noticed their stars on the St Louis Walk of Fame), or that Johnson had lived here in University City. Johnson's changing role in the research also was a revelation. I had always assumed, from the way the team was referred to, and from the iconic photos of the two lab-coated researchers, that they were a pair of researchers embarking on this quest together, and not that it had started as Masters' research and that Johnson had joined the team at a rather lower level and worked her way up. Lots of interesting detail and a well-told story. The narration on the audio was well-done. Obviously there's some rather frank discussion of human sexuality here, so steer clear if that offends you. And with the weird coerced to semi-coerced sexual relationship between the two researchers added to the general ideas surrounding sex back then (and today), well, there's some creepiness too.

All the Names They Used for God: Stories

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva, 256 pages.

Sachdeva's first book of stories contain's some beautiful work. The collection starts with the story "The World by Night," and it is eerie and odd, with a lonely woman wandering around a strange underworld. Continuing with "Glass Lung" which was another strange and off-kilter story, and then on with "Logging Lake," a story that filled me with a strange sort of dread. It was difficult for me to read this story about a man and his new girlfriend, both pretending to match the online the profiles that brought them together, and whose lives are permanently altered at a lonely campsite when the wolves come out at night, but it turned out to be a story well worth reading.
With her other stories like "Anything You Might Want," showing the difficult choices and grim regret of an almost ordinary life to the creepily dystopian "Manus," the collection shows the author's impressive range and dazzlingly creative imagination.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

At Home

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, 497 pages

In this fascinating book, Bryson looks into the parts of history that are usually overlooked: the stories of how homes developed, of how different rooms found their purpose, of how humans gradually became more comfortable. Along the way, Bryson often branches off into rambling tangents about everything from the scandalous spending habits of Thomas Jefferson to the stomach-turning life cycles of household pests (I give you permission to skip that chapter if you're worried about nightmares of creepy crawly creatures) to the late-coming efforts to preserve prehistorical sites in Britain. All in all, it's a treasure trove of trivia for anyone who wondered about the walls around them, the chair their sitting on, the bed they sleep in...

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Hypercapitalism: the modern economy, its values, and how to change them / Larry Gonick & Tim Kasser, 230 pgs.

A wonderful cartoon version of our economic system, the good and the bad.  How does capitalism turn into hypercapitalism and what are the effects?  What does it mean for consumers and workers? How can you combat hypercapitalism? Kudos to the authors for the beautiful feature about libraries that talks about sharing as a way of cutting consumerism. Overall very informative.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, 191 pages

When the body of a strangled showgirl appears in the library of a manor house, the lady of the house calls upon her good friend Miss Marple to help solve the mystery. Suspicion rotates through the retired army colonel who owns the manor, a shady Hollywood executive that lives nearby, the victim's various coworkers, and the family of an elderly man who had taken a shine to the victim. But the police are flummoxed, leaving Miss Marple to use her nosy, gossip-filled ways to track down the murderer.

This is the first Miss Marple book I've read, and I've gotta say that I love the elderly spinster, who sprinkles gossip throughout her conversations and seems to have a village parallel to everyone she encounters in the course of the investigation. Her intuitions and observations about human behavior are so much more likeable than Hercule Poirot's methods. I see a lot more Marple in my future.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Natural causes

Natural Causes: an epidemic of wellness, the certainty of dying and killing ourselves to live longer / Barbara Ehrenreich, read by Joyce Bean, 248 pgs.

What is successful aging? What can we do to prevent it?  Ehrenreich tackles wellness and health with her usual skeptical look at the proof that any of this does you any good.  Do we really need all these medical tests?  Is there any proof that eating a paleo diet or vegetarian diet or Mediterranean diet really extend your life? Is aging a disease?

Like other books by the author, she reveals that you can't believe everything you read, especially if you are reading a celebrity "life style" blog.

Excuse me while I go eat some chocolate.

Kathleen said it better here.

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (2016) 323 pages

If you ever need a fast read filled with humor, lots of openness, really strong advocacy for women, as well as a lot of talk about sex, this book is for you!

Comedian Amy Schumer's part memoir, part essay book is entertaining and thoughtful, (and sometimes a bit shocking).

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The great alone

The great alone / Kristin Hannah, read by Julia Whelan, 440 pgs.

Leni is 13 when her family moves to Alaska to live off the grid.  Her dad is not the same since returning from Vietnam and throughout the book becomes more paranoid and violent.  Leni's mom Cora still loves her husband but is getting too good at making excuses for him. This is a bit of a soap opera and not really my cup of tea.  Read Tara Westover's Educated for a similar story that is non fiction.


Nemesis by Jo Nesbø  474 pp.

This was my first attempt at a book by this popular author and I had hopes that I might find a new series in the police procedural/thriller genre. Unfortunately I was disappointed by this book. Detective Harry Hole is a stereotypical police detective with a drinking problem. A young artist is found dead of an apparent suicide the day after Hole had a date with her - a date that he doesn't remember the end of due to a drunken blackout. Hole doesn't believe it was suicide and begins unofficially investigating while also officially working on a bank robbery and murder. Maybe I've just read too many of this type of story, but this one seemed predictable and I debated even finishing it.


Shibumi by Trevanian  374 pp.

Nicholai Hel, born in Shanghai and raised in pre-WWII Japan, is the son of a Russian aristocrat and a mysterious German father. He is Japanese in his manner, mysticism, and culture. He is also a genius, a Go master, and an assassin. After post-war imprisonment, where he spends his time study languages and honing his mysterious "proximity sense", Hel becomes a hired assassin. His training in Naked/Kill, a martial art using common objects at hand as deadly weapons make him a lethal weapon in any circumstance. After retiring to the Northern Basque Country on the border of France and Spain, he lives a life of peace with his long time companion, the beautiful Hana, until threatened by the "Mother Company", a sinister organization that controls intelligence activities worldwide by threats and blackmail. This is not a new book having first been published in 1979 but, with the exception of the hijacking of a Concorde, there is nothing to make the story dated. The addition of the characters of Hel's ebullient Basque friend, Beñat Le Cagot and Pierre, the frighteningly bad driver add comic relief to the seriousness of the story. I listened to the audiobook version which was well narrated by Joe Barrett.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Last Black Unicorn

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish, 278 pages

Tiffany Haddish is a funny, funny woman. The actress and comedian's career blew up after her appearance in last summer's Girls' Trip, though some may know her better as that hilarious woman who wears the same white designer dress to every fancy event (including the Oscars) or the person who launched the Who Bit Beyonce? debate on social media.

The Last Black Unicorn is her memoir, detailing her childhood, the rise of her comedy career, and her life as she adjusts to fame. Yes, it has plenty of hilarious bits, but there's a LOT of serious stuff discussed here too — Haddish had a rough childhood punctuated by a mentally ill mother and spending her teen years as a foster kid; she spent a bit of time dating a wannabe pimp (and subsequently stealing his prostitute away to become a pimp herself) before entering an abusive marriage; and as she struggled to make it as a comedian, she couch-surfed and then lived in her car because she couldn't afford rent. All that is rough to read or hear, yes, but Haddish relays it candidly, in her own voice, with a shot of humor to help us all cope.

I mention Haddish's voice there because I listened to the audiobook (read by Haddish) and absolutely loved it. At no point does it feel like she's actually reading a book — instead, it felt like she was just sitting there, telling me her story over some drinks. It was great, and I highly recommend experiencing this book that way.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Notes from a public typewriter

Notes from a public typewriter / Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti, 159 pgs.

A sweet book that collects some of the best things typed on a typewriter in an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI.  Owners Michael and Hilary were warned off opening a bookstore but they did it anyway.  Since 2013 they have overseen Literati Bookstore and from the first day had a typewriter available for anyone to use.  Thinking this might turn into a crowd-sourced hit novel, instead, they have been amazed and touched by some of the little notes they find on the paper.  This book tells a little of their story and features some of the favorite words left behind by visitors to the store. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Feather Thief

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson, 308 pages

In 2009, Edwin Rist, a 21-year-old flautist, broke into an ornithological museum in the U.K. and stole almost 300 rare bird specimens. Did he do it for the challenge? To sell to taxidermists and milliners? Nope. He stole them to tie flies and sell to other fly-tiers. Yes, like the ones used for fly fishing, but WAY fancier. Johnson's book delves into all aspects of this crime, including the history of the museum and the birds that were pilfered, the squishy ethics of the elite fly-tying world, the opaque psyche of Rist, and the post-heist hunt for the birds. Through it all, Johnson weaves the seemingly disparate subjects of crime, natural history, fashion, fishing, and classical music performance into a tight, well-told story.

The female persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer

Faith Frank is described in Wolitzer’s novel, as “a couple steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame,” but the similarities are clear.  Faith is blond, tall, and still stunningly beautiful in signature high suede boots, even into her early seventies.   She is the author of The female persuasion a seminal feminist book written in 1984, and editor of Bloomer, which is also a couple of steps down from Ms.  When freshman Greer Kadetsky’s new college friend, Zee, urges her to come with her to hear Frank speak on campus, it is life-changing for Greer.  Greer’s hippy-dippy parents have been too stoned to fill out her financial aid forms correctly and she is stuck at a small New York liberal arts college rather than with her high-school boyfriend, Cory, at Princeton where they both were accepted but only Cory received aid.  An incident at a frat party, where she is groped by a senior, also contributes to Greer’s budding feminism, which is sealed when she accompanies another friend to a back street abortion and the friend nearly bleeds to death.  Ultimately, Greer will come to work for Faith after college on a new women’s foundation, funded by the morally-dubious hedge fund owner, Emmett Shrader, after Bloomer goes under.  Cory’s life goes off the rails not long afterwards because of a family tragedy which will drive Greer and him apart. Although the characters are fully realized and the multiple plots are engaging, this reads rather like a long exposition on feminism.  By the book’s end, we are in the present day when many if not most of the gains made by earlier women are under threat on all sides, even from some women (the friend who had an abortion becomes an influential pro-life senator, as does her daughter).  Although by the end of the book Greer and Cory find successful places in life, the future of feminism seems less hopeful.  454 pp.