Sunday, June 24, 2018

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

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

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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The big get-even

The big get-even / Paul Di Filippo, read by Keith Szarabajka, 345 pgs.

Glen McClinton had a drug problem that he was funding by stealing from his clients.  He ended up disbarred and after a prison sentence, is out trying to get his life back together.  He is out one night and saves a guy from an overdose.  Months later, this guy looks him up.  Stan is also an ex-con, actually got out the day he ODed.  Stan is now clean again and recruiting Glen for a big scam to get even with the guy who allowed him to go to prison.  To pull this off, they end up re-opening a lodge that had been closed for years to get their mark to believe the land is worth much more than it actually is worth.  The scam ends up being a lot of work and along the way, there is a quirky group of locals who work for the lodge.  Everyone keeps moving things forward and having a lot of casual hook-ups.  In the end, do they pull off the deal?  You will have to read (or listen) if you want to know.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017) 289 pages

Sing, Unburied, Sing is told from different perpectives: that of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy; Leonie, his drug-addicted mother; and also of Richie, a boy that Jojo's grandfather had met decades ago when they'd both been inmates at Parchman, a prison/farm camp, as teenagers. Richie died at Parchman. Parchman is the same prison that Jojo's own father is doing time at, and he is due to be released.

Leonie brings her children, Jojo and his toddler-aged sister, on an overnight road trip to pick up their father from prison. Jojo doesn't want to go, and it's clear that his grandfather doesn't want the children to go either, since Leonie has made a career out of selfishness. The road trip up to the northern part of Mississippi in the old Nova, accompanied by a white friend of Leonie's, is unpleasant. Leonie stops for refreshments a few times, but never thinks about getting anything for her children. There's also a stop to buy drugs, and soon after that, Jojo's little sister gets very sick. Oh, and along with picking up Jojo's father, another being hitches a ride back with them--Richie's ghost, who insists he needs to speak with Jojo's grandfather. Meanwhile, back at home, Leonie's mother is dying of cancer, and one starts to wonder if her impending death will jolt Leonie into caring for her children.

Sing is a haunting novel that kept compelling me to go back to reread passages to savor, to try to understand them better.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Uberville

Uberville: St. Louis Uber stories / Gregory Mark Triefenbach, illustrations by Steven Discipline, 170 pgs.

A collection of stories from an experienced Uber driver working in St. Louis. The author freely admits that 97% of his customers are "normal" and not worthy of being featured in a book but the other 3% is the stuff books are made from.  Triefenbach works the late nights so has had his share of drunks and druggies.  He has confused people, angry people, funny people and couples in the throes of passion and breakup.  He has, mostly, a 20 - 30 minute look into the lives of others.  Mostly funny stuff, I assume a second volume will be forthcoming.

How to be a better person

How to be a better person: 400 + simple ways to make a difference in yourself - and the world / Kate Hanley, 223 pgs.

I don't know what I was expecting but what I got was a lot of cheesy recommendations about how to be a better person, several contradict other recommendation and most of them are pretty useless.  Nothing is explained past the type of detail in a People magazine.  I read them all but not feeling like this is anything that could seriously help anyone become a better person unless you need more tips like "take a vacation" and "declutter." 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Asymmetry

 Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, 275 pages.

The characters and the wonderful, absorbing writing by Halliday, and her absolute clarity masked, for me, the fact that until the end of the book I had no idea how the two disparate parts were really coming together. Even after the end, I'm still not too sure, but I am pretty sure that this lack of understanding reflects a flaw in my reading and not in the writing. I am pretty sure that I love this book and am grateful to my coworkers who were talking this one up. The first part of the book concerns Alice, a young woman who is working as an editor and who wants to be a writer, and who after a chance encounter, develops a relationship with an elderly writer, an icon of American literature. In the second part of the book, Aman, an American Economist, born to Iraqi immigrants, reflects on recent events in his life and the lives of his family as he waits out a layover at Heathrow airport in an airport detention facility.
Really worth the time. Plus there's a list of recommended recordings at the end of the book.

The Parking Lot Attendant

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat, 225 pages.

Told from the viewpoint of a 16 year-old, unnamed Ethiopian-American girl, living in Boston with her father (well, for most of the story, anyway), This story is strange, compelling and beautifully odd. The narrator has lived with her mother and with her father, but never with both at the same time. As the story opens, she hasn't seen or heard from her mother in the last several years, and her relationship with her father is very strained. One day after school, upon hearing Amharic spoken at a local restaurant, she becomes acquainted with Ayale, the man described in the book's title. Besides the parking lot, Ayale tends to many other hidden enterprises, dispenses favors, delivers odd packages and argues with the narrator's father.
Tamirat writes beautifully and keeps the plot twisting enough so that everyone, reader and character alike of off-balance and a little confused.

Luxury: Poems

Luxury: Poems by Philip Schultz, 76 pages.
Philip Schultz, Jewish-American poet, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Failure, and the founder and director of the Writers' Studio,
has written an another astoundingly good collection. The emotional range of 
From the loss and despair found in poems like "Sacrifice,"

A vest designed to explode.
An argument about God
and nothingness and shame.
An idea infused with hunger,
with hate spread over the pavement,
smeared along the wall, obscuring
every view and reflection . . .

to the depth and vision found in the title poem, make for great reading, this is from the beginning of section Two of "Luxury,"

Sometimes
a noise I can sense
but not hear
ricochets
in a place in me
I can't name.
That's when
the darkness accentuates
of guilt and shame
and I'm unable to distinguish
between misery
and nothingness.
When
all dignity vanishes
and nothing is left to say
or do,
be curious about,
or desire.
When
my mother's voice
pleads
for me to remember
everything
I live for.


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, 257 pages.

Vance's paean to his family and the land they came from. Vance grew up in Jackson, Kentucky, and in Ohio, bouncing around between living with his mother and her series of boyfriends, and staying with, or at least seeking shelter with, his Mamaw and Papaw. Colorful and honest, it is a good story. Many of my coworkers have read and commented on this book, and it has received a lot of attention elsewhere. I liked it, thought it was excellent in parts, and I will just let what others have said about it stand in for my comments. The audio was capably narrated by the author.

Warlight

Warlight / Michael Ondaatje, read by Steve West, 289 pgs.

Nathaniel is 14 and his sister Rachel is 16 when their parents leave for a year on a "trip."  The war has just ended and they are left with two caregivers that they suspect are criminals.  Now, as an adult, Nathaniel learns that his mother was part of the war effort, working in intelligence. He tries to piece together a record of her service and interviews people from his own past learning that his caretakers were protectors of he and his sister.  As the book progresses, it becomes more of his mother's story.  This book is beautifully written, a hallmark of Ondaatje's work, and wonderfully read by Steve West.

Herding cats

Herding cats: a "Sarah's Scribbles" collection, 108 pgs.

A charming collection of comics and essays that talks SOME about cats but is more focused on how to survive in this modern world.  Not so much about world issues, but more about the personal issues that can make it difficult to navigate the world.  Sarah is a bit of an introvert and that makes some social situations difficult.  But a little social anxiety isn't the only thing to cope with, she is also loath to stop hitting the snooze button, knows better than to interact with a morning person and realizes she should never "shop" for pets.  Cute drawings and commentary with a few slightly heavier issues revealed.

Noir

Noir / Christopher Moore, read by Johnny Heller, 339 pgs.

Sammy Tiffin tends bar in San Francisco after WWII.  He falls for a woman (Stilton, like the cheese) who comes in one afternoon and they get entangled in a couple of situations that are a little crazy.  Sammy is dealing in China town for a poisonous snake that will assist the sexual prowess of elderly men, an Air Force general is looking for some "good girls" for a fun night with rich men and various government agencies are involved with the cover-up of a UFO crash. Sammy and Stilton are somehow involved with all these things and end up no a real adventure that ends as you hope it would...happily ever after (maybe?).  Full of quirky characters, there is lots of action and funny one liners.  A fun audiobook.

Tell me how it ends

Tell me how it ends: an essay in forty questions / Valeria Luiselli, 119 pgs.

What happens to kids who cross the border alone?  This book doesn't really tell you because it seems hard to know.  However, the author has volunteered as a translator for kids coming from Central America.  Here she reveals the forty questions that all are asked.  Some don't know answers, some of the answers will break your heart. 

Luiselli is a wonderful writer and a wonderful person for getting involved in this strange activity that is better known as our border policies. This book packs an emotional punch.

Calypso, by David Sedaris


Collected short pieces from the unique voice of Sedaris, a few of which I read previously in the New Yorker.  Unlike his earlier work, not many of these are laugh-out-loud-funny.  Although his life has never been an easy or pain-free one, and much of his writing has an edge, there is a new darkness in this book.  He writes about his mother’s early death from alcoholism, and her dual personae of beloved mom and embarrassing horror show; about his sister Tiffany’s suicide at 50, after a disturbed and disturbing life quasi-homeless; and more than one story hinges on just plain being gross.  I miss the “me talk pretty one day” Sedaris, but a there’s been a lot of water under the bridge in the intervening seventeen years and that water contains a monstrous snapping turtle with a cancerous growth on its head.  259 pp.