Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Walking Shadows

Walking Shadows: A Decker / Lazarus Novel by Faye Kellerman, 384 pages.
This was my first Faye Kellerman book in quite a while and I was a little disappointed. I don't think that the police can just casually access your tax records and I think that not paying any rent or utilities when you have a decent full-time job might explain always having enough money for nice restaurants.
Also, I was reading this while listening to a Louise Penny novel, so the crossed wires might have had a negative effect on my opinion of this book. Decker has retired from the LAPD and is living and working in Greenbury New York. While responding to a vandalism complaint Decker discovers a body and his investigation leads him to another more brutal murder in the neighboring town of Hamilton. These two murders are apparently linked and there also seems to be a connection to a pair of murders in Hamilton that occurred twenty years ago. Police corruption, family secrets, and betrayals are all threaded together in this police procedural.

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir by Michael Kupperman, 218 pages.
Michael Kupperman knew that his father had been famous, but his father never wanted to talk about it. Father Joel taught philosophy at the University of Connecticut and had built their family home off in the woods. Michael grew up feeling isolated and alone. In the years before his father's death, as dementia began to set in, Michael tries to talk to his father and find out what it was about his childhood and teen years, time he had spent as one of the most famous kids in America, that had affected him so strongly. Michael finds that his father has blocked out large portions of his time as a radio and TV star on "Quiz Kids." Joel would grow uncomfortable when TV or radio were even mentioned and would leave the room if anyone brought up the show he was on or his famous past. The art is spare but very effective, and moves the story along well.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, 368 pages.
Harriet Westaway, known as Hal, finds out that she may have some previously unkown-to-her family on her mother's side at about the same time she finds out that the consequences of borrowing money from a local loan shark and not paying back the interest can be serious. While Hal doubts that she is in anyway the granddaughter that the late Mrs. Westaway's estate is searching for, she is intrigued by the possible lifeline that the idea of inheritance offers. Hal decides that she is willing to go and meet her possible relatives and to keep her answers vague enough until she can see if there is an inheritance sufficient to keep her bones unbroken.
An intriguing book with plenty of twists and turns. The downloadable audio is brilliantly read by Imogen Church.

The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, 338 pages.
Kushner was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2013 for The Flamethrowers. Her newest book is quite different but does a great job of showing her range and in maybe showing that she is very good at whatever she sets out to do. From the very first page Romy Hall is going to tell the reader and her fellow inmates only so much. If you want to know her story or anyone's story here at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility then you have to be patient. Romy tells her story slowly, going back and forth between the now of prison life, and her time before prison, her life growing up in San Francisco and then the events that led to her incarceration. Romy and her fellow prisoners have all suffered abuse to varying degrees, but they are not claiming victimhood. Romy killed her stalker. Button was only fourteen when she and two companions killed a man during an attempted robbery. Conan and Teardrop, Betty and Doc, and many other characters have their interesting stories told. All in all it is a very good book with some odd little flaws. Rights are "waved" instead of "waived." The unabomber manifesto confused me, too.

The talented Ribkins

The talented Ribkins / Ladee Hubbard, 295 pages

All of the Ribkins have a special talent. The type of things your don't hear about all the time.  Johnny has a way with maps, Franklin could climb walls, Simone appears to people as she wants to be seen, Bertrand can belch fire and young Eloise catches things. Each is trying to use their gift in the best way possible but at the same time, they are often stumbling and making mistakes.  Johnny is in a situation where he owes some money fast and takes a trip "running errands" which means he is digging up old treasures.  He and half brother Franklin had a nice partnership of stealing things for awhile before Franklin died and so lots of holes contain cash and jewelry.  Johnny's niece Eloise has just met her uncle and is traveling with him to get to know her dad's side of the family.  Her father died before she was born so there is a big gap.  Always a fan of a good dysfunctional family, this group is really more functional that most.  Also reminiscent of last year's favorite "Spoonbenders."  Certainly a fun book to read.

The beauty of dirty skin

The beauty of dirty skin / Whitney Bowe, 278 pgs.

An interesting overview of how we are abusing our skin and how we can stop.  Also interesting connections between other lifestyle choices and how they affect skin health.  Diet, exercise and stress levels are mentioned and discussed in detail.  The idea here is that everything we do is connected and to fix problems may take changes in several areas.  The positive news it if you are not comfortable with it, maybe medication isn't the first step.  Lots of this has been said before with no specific reference to skin but it doesn't hurt to hear it again.


Monday, July 30, 2018

Sky in the Deep

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young, 340 pages.

When Eelyn discovers that her brother, Iri, might still be alive, it changes her life. She and the rest of her Riki clan are locked in ritualized, but deadly battle with the neighboring Aska, their sworn enemy, the killers of their friends and family. Eelyn's journey from warrior to prisoner, her battle's with the rules of her clan, and the conflict she feels between clan loyalty and the love she feels for Fiske, a member of the enemy clan all have some familiar
Young tells an interesting tale about family and betrayal, and she has created a believable world. Ably narrated by Khristine Hvam.

No One Is Coming to Save Us

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, 371 pages.
In looking over the reviews now, I realize that when I listened to this book, a couple of months ago, I completely missed the Great Gatsby connection. I like being able to prove, over and over again, that I'm not really a careful or close reader.

Pinewood, North Carolina is the setting for this tale of an extended family. All the good jobs have moved overseas and the people who have stuck around have all seen a measure of hard times.When JJ returns to the area, ostensibly a wealthy man now, after a childhood of poverty, old feelings and emotions are brought to the surface.
This was the One Book, One Kirkwood read for 2018, and I listened to the book in anticipation of going to see the author back in May. I wasn't able to make it to the event, but I am still glad that I read this excellent book.

The Bible of Dirty Jokes

The Bible of Dirty Jokes by Eileen Pollack, 307 pages.

As we meet Ketzel Weinrach she is a recent initiate to widowhood. She grew up imitating the comedians who performed at her parent's Borscht Belt resort. She could do dead-on imitations of Henny Youngman, Zero Mostel, and all the greats of the 1950s and 60s. As an adult, when she decided to take to the stage these imitations didn't take her very far. Comedy was shifting and Ketzel was being left behind, but then Ketzel met Morty and things were good for a while.
Ketzel has always been a little bit our of sync with the world around her. Her parents and her brothers were always playing a little bit loose with the rules. Grampa was allegedly in the mob's pocket, Leo, the family retainer, had a bit of a gambling problem and maybe left a few bodies at the bottom of a local lake. Brother Ira died during the Six-Day-War, brother Howie became a religious zealot after a stint in prison, and brother Mike died in a helicopter crash after he quit working for the family business and went to work for Donald Trump.
Ketzel has been drawn back into her parents' world now that her last surviving brother, Potzie, has disappeared. As she attempts to track down Potzie and their slimey cousin Perry, Ketzel keeps uncovering family secrets. A good solid mystery.

Valdez is Coming

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard, 232 pages.

Bob Valdez worked as the shotgun rider on a Hatch and Hodges stagecoach. He also worked as the town constable in Lanoria, Arizona. He was an accommodating man, willing to go along, to get along. But, after Valdez was tortured and almost killed by the gunmen employed by a local cattle rancher, as he was seeking justice for a widowed mother, he reverts to the man he was when he served as a scout for the during the war against the Apaches.
Leonard did violence very well. No one is taking anything lightly, but people continually mistake the everyday for the extraordinary. Maybe the first book I have read because it was mentioned in the review of a novel, two characters in the forthcoming George Pelecanos novel discuss this book.

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes, 450 pages.

Rhodes has written a wonderful account of the Obama administration and the world he knew during that time. Before volunteering for the Obama campaign, Rhodes had worked for former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, Lee Hamilton, and had been part of the 2006 Iraq Study Group.
Near the end of the book, Rhodes, who had been kept out of meetings on Russian interference during the election, reflects on his last days in the White House when he was let in on what was being uncovered, "I'd run into different staffers who worked on Russia in the government, and they always had the same message: It's even worse than you think. Always the suggestion was that there was more to the story. Trump, one told me, is exactly the kind of person that the Russians liked to invest in for years."

Addendum: Barack Obama, on the eve of traveling to Africa gave us his Africa-focused reading list, and among titles by Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chimamada Ngozi Adichie, he talked about this book by Ben Rhodes, saying, "Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people."

The Mars Room

The Mars Room: a Novel / Rachel Kushner, 336 p.

Romy Hall is serving multiple life sentences in California for killing a man who relentlessly stalked her.  Her extenuating circumstances, and there are many, were never presented in court by her hopelessly overworked public defender, but the reader learns all of them.  Surrounding Romy are a fascinating group of flawed but human fellow prisoners, all drawn in terrific detail.  The novel is full of gorgeous visuals of California desert and mountains, perfectly tied to the narrative, and the writing is of the 'can't stop until the last page' variety.  But something fell short here, though it's hard to say what, exactly.  It wouldn't make sense for a novel such as this to have a happy ending, and I didn't want one.  Still, Kushner seems to have put all kinds of things in here - references to Thoreau, and the Unabomber, and ancillary characters whose stories just fizzle out - and then grown tired of it, too early for the reader.  Great writing but not, in my view, a great novel.

Big Guns

Big Guns by Steve Israel, 310 pages

Gun crime is WAY up across the country, and Chicago has become the poster child for gun violence. When the mayor of the Windy City joins with other metropolitan mayors in a promise to enact gun control measures, the stocks of gun manufacturers naturally takes a hit. So what's a gun manufacturer to do but lean on his lobbyists to help get pro-gun measures passed in Congress? This is the set-up for Israel's novel, a satirical look at gun politics in America. It's uncomfortably real in many ways, but former U.S. Congressman Israel does a wonderful job making the book funny as well (I especially liked all of the organization names he came up with for pro- and anti-gun groups). Fans of political satire like Thank You For Smoking will enjoy this one.

Darth Vader and Son

Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown, 64 pages

In this short and sweet book, Brown imagines funny vignettes of Darth Vader as a doting dad to a 4-year-old Luke Skywalker. It's cute, the comics are funny, and you don't have to be a mega-fan of Star Wars to appreciate it. Well worth the 20 minutes it takes to read it.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman: a Novel / Sayaka Murata, 163 p.

In Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, a young man "on the spectrum" meets and falls in love with a "typical" woman who complements his amusing yet poignant idiosyncrasies.  I loved the book, and recommended it far and wide.

The convenience store woman, Keiko, is also somewhere on the spectrum.  Her loving family has never known how to help her, but when she lands a full-time job at a neighborhood convenience store, stocking shelves and greeting customers according to the company's cheery stock phrases, her life seems to take a positive turn.  She loves her job and feels adrift when she's away from work.  But Keiko's life shifts again when a moody, disaffected young man takes a job at the store.  Will Keiko grow and change in response?  Is a happy ending possible?

Just as funny in its way as The Rosie Project, but far darker in tone and outlook, Murata's novel felt extremely realistic psychologically.  Insightful, sad, and recommended.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline  374 pp.

This is such a fun book. I enjoyed its geekiness even though I'm not a gamer. The premise of a future where real life is so awful everyone prefers to live in a virtual world called the "OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation)" provides the setting for the ultimate video game with billions of dollars at stake. What makes this novel so enjoyable is the stream of pop culture references from the 1970s & 80s. Songs, movies, and early video games are all a part of the contest game set up by the designer of the the OASIS as his legacy. Protagonist Wade Watts and a few others have taken the lead in the contest. But an evil corporation enters the contest pitting multiple players against the individuals playing on their own and the contest turns deadly. The audiobook version is read by Wil Wheaton who does an acceptable job but I kept waiting to hear the line "Shut up, Wesley!"

Okay for Now

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt  360 pp.

I liked other books by Schmidt that I read in the past and have used them for my kids book club. While Okay for Now is good, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Wednesday Wars or Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. The main character is Doug who has been transplanted from New York City to a small town where his abusive, alcoholic father found a job. Doug is trying to make himself into a good person and protect his mom, but with his father and a criminal brother, it isn't easy. A fascination with a rare book of Audubon bird illustrations leads to a friendship with the local librarian. His science teacher is also on his side. And Lil, the first person he meets helps him get a job for her father's store. His older brother returns from Vietnam physically and mentally scarred which leads to more drama in the family. There is a lot going on in this book and Doug's journey to be his own person is a heartfelt one. It's worth reading but not a choice for my book club this time around.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Separation

A Separation by Katie Kitamura (2017), 229 pages

At the beginning of this novel, a wife who has been separated from her husband is called by his mother, Isabel, who does not know of the separation, but who does know that her son Christopher went to Greece. Isabel is insistent that Christopher's wife travel there and make sure he's ok since she has not been able to contact him. The wife (whose name isn't revealed), decides to go ahead and travel to Christopher's hotel in an isolated area of Greece in order to ask him for a divorce.

Upon her arrival, she learns that Christopher hasn't been seen by the hotel staff for several days. Based on the behavior of one of the hotel's employees, a desk clerk named Maria, she suspects that Christopher has had an affair with the young woman, not surprising since Christopher had a habit of infidelity. The wife decides to hang around for a few days to see if he returns, taking a couple of day trips to look at a church and meet an old woman who was a professional weeper at funerals.

The time spent waiting to see if Christopher would return was also spent in mulling over relationships, not only her own with Christopher, but also that of Maria, the desk clerk, with Stefano, a man who is clearly in love with her, and also the relationship between Christopher's parents, Isabel and Mark. The outward lustiness of the only other guests at the hotel is also something to consider. This novel isn't uplifting, but it does provide something to think about...

Homicide in Hardcover

Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle (2009) 289 pages

This book, the first in "A Bibliophile Mystery" series, is the first Carlisle book I've read. Her protagonist, Brooklyn Wainwright, is trained in the conservation and preservation of books. She'd first come to the profession by training with her mentor, Abraham Karastovsky, whom she'd met as a child when her family lived in a commune near San Francisco. She and Abraham had had a falling out when she'd decided to open her own business rather than staying with him. When the story opens, she's very nervous about seeing him again at a private showing of an important book collection he's working on, not knowing how their relationship stands after six months apart.

To Brooklyn's immense joy, Abraham welcomes her with great enthusiasm. However, that same night, she finds him dying in his workroom in the basement of the facility where the private showing is occurring. All he can say before he dies is "Devil. Remember the devil." 

Brooklyn is an immediate suspect in his murder. Worse, in her view, is when she begins to think that her own mother is involved. Brooklyn not only wants to finish Abraham's work preserving a Faust book by Goethe, which is said to be cursed, but (of course, as Whodunnits often go) she also wants to find out who killed Abraham.

Carlisle creates a nice mix of characters, some a bit stereotyped, but still entertaining: from Brooklyn's family (she is one of six children raised by Grateful Dead-enamored hippies), to her best friend Robin from their "growing up in the commune" years, to her ex-fiance Ian, to colorful neighbors, to wealthy benefactors. Finally, there's Derek, whose good looks continue to stun Brooklyn, even though she's not sure whether to trust him.


Yes we (still) can

Yes, we (still) can: politics in the age of Obama, twitter and Trump / Dan Pfeiffer 291 pgs.

Sometimes funny, sometimes inspiring, it is great to read about a group of people who dedicated their energy to trying to do good things for others.  It didn't always work and the backstories about disagreeable congresspeople are perhaps historic insights.  Pfeiffer's own story is interesting because he tells us his philosophy is to always work harder and be devoted and that is the key to his success even in areas where he isn't all that competitive (see high school basketball).  Reading things like this can make one melancholy.  Let's hope we still can at some point in the near future.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The big sleep

The big sleep / Raymond Chandler, 231 pgs.

As hard boiled as they come, this book introduces Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator. He has a code, he is smart, he isn't easily dissuaded and he can take a punch.  This is one of the classics and a total pleasure to read.  Marlowe gets involved in a case with a lot of sex, porn, blackmail and gambling.  Sometimes it is difficult for the reader to see what is going on but Marlowe always seems to know.  A fast-paced classic and an example of what mystery writing is all about.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The trauma cleaner

The trauma cleaner: one woman't extraordinary life in the business of death, decay and disaster / Sarah Krasnostein, read by Rachel Tidd, 291 pgs.

A remarkable book whose audio version is also wonderful.  Sandra Pankhurst is a small business owner whose business is to clean up traumatic messes.  Her card says "hoarding and pet hoarding cleanup * Squalor/trashed properties * preparing the home for home-help agencies to attend * odor control *Homicide, suicide, and death scenes * deceased estates * mold, flood, and fire remediation * methamphetamine lab cleanup * industrial accidents * cell cleaning."  So you kind of know maybe to not start the book while you are eating.  But what this doesn't tell, is the story of Sandra herself.  An abused child, she started life as an adopted child of Bill and Ailsa but then she was Peter.  Peter grew up and married Linda and had two sons before leaving to embark upon the journey to become Sandra.  Along the way, she was a drag queen, a sex worker, a funeral director, a trophy wife, and more.  This book is really amazing just like the Sandra. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

My German Brother

My German Brother: a Novel / Chico Buarque, trans. Alison Entrekin, 199 p.

Ciccio comes of age in Sao Paolo in the 1960s, stealing cars with his friend Ariosto and cheerfully stalking his older brother Mimmo's parade of girlfriends.  One day, while leafing through one of his father's books - he has thousands, and they are shelved 2, 3 and 4-deep throughout the house - he comes across a letter pointing to the existence of a half-brother, born in Germany in the early thirties.

I don't know how to say what I mean, exactly, but this novel has that lovely quality of a lot of South American novels I've read: dreamy and smooth, as if the events slide through time kept on a new, strange clock.  It's also very funny, earthy, and poignant.  Based on events from the author's life, and including copies of real letters involved in the search for Chico Buarque's own German brother. 

I'm Down

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff, 273 pages

As she points out in the prologue, Mishna Wolff is white. Her mom, her dad, her sister... all white. But her dad thinks he's black, and so after her parents divorce, Mishna and her sister live with their dad in a predominantly black and poor neighborhood in the Seattle area, playing double-dutch and having their hair braided into cornrows while their dad plays dominoes. While her dad and sister feel completely at home in their surroundings, nerdy and quiet Mishna can't help but feel out-of-place in their rough neighborhood and questionable public school. But it isn't any better when she starts attending a mostly-white school for gifted kids either, as they see her secondhand clothes and neighborhood-learned behaviors as weird.

It's an interesting story, though certainly not a universal one. What just about everybody can identify with, however, is that awkward feeling of not belonging, as well as Mishna's growing confidence as she begins to figure out how she fits in these dual worlds. I enjoyed this book, particularly the audiobook, which is read by the author.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Grass Kings

Grass Kings, vol. 1 by Matt Kindt, art by Tyler Jenkins, 176 pages


Brothers Robert, Bruce, and Ashur live in the Grass Kingdom, a self-sustaining trailer park and something of a loner utopia. But there's bad blood between them and the sheriff of Cargill, the town across the lake from the Grass Kingdom, stemming from the disappearance of Robert's daughter years earlier. That enmity is only exacerbated when a mysterious woman washes up on the Grass Kingdom side of the lake, seeking refuge from Cargill's sheriff.

This is a slow-burning, compelling story, told through beautiful and raw watercolors. It's something of a modern-day western, with plenty of tension, ammunition, booze-soaked grief, and a face-off with the law. I very much enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading more as the story develops.

Subversive Cross Stitch

Subversive Cross Stitch: 33 Designs For Your Surly Side by Julie Jackson (2006)  96 pages

For those who are interested in counted cross stitch, Jackson's book gives photos of 33 designs, along with charts and thread colors used in the designs. Jackson also gives hints on how to get started for those who are new to counted cross stitch.

The designs aren't really subversive, but the phrases used do show some spunky attitude. There are several that use the "f bomb." Here are some of the phrases that don't: "Irony is not dead," "Whatever," "You Can't Make Me." I made these two: "Bite Me" (requested by a brother-in-law) and "Life Sucks, Then You Die."  If you desire to use a phrase with stronger language, chances are that you will find it in this book. If not, create your own, using the lettering guide at the back. The borders and design elements around the sayings are delightfully sweet, making for an interesting contrast.





Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney, 217 pages

In the ninth book of this series, the titular wimpy kid, Greg, and his family head out on a road trip in their packed minivan and stumble into all kinds of misadventures, including winning a piglet at a county fair, to fender benders, to losing wallets at the water park, to asking a teenager to shop for sandwich fixings (that one may be the most disastrous). All in all, a perfect funny tale to have your nine-year-old read to you as you drive across the country.

The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and The Titan's Curse

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, 377 pages

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan, 279 pages
The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan, 312 pages

These first three books of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series take us through Percy's realization that he's a demigod, introduce us to the satyr Grover and child-of-Athena Annabeth, and take the characters on multiple cross-country adventures that manage to destroy as many national monuments as mythological monsters. They're a load of fun, and my whole family enjoyed listening to the audiobooks, read by Jesse
Bernstein.

The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, 182 pages

When mysterious tycoon Sam Westing dies, 16 people are gathered together as his potential heirs, despite none of them having any clue why they'd be considered for his $220 million estate. In order to get it though, they have to find his killer... who also happens to be a potential heir. I read this book over and over as a kid, and was thrilled to find the audiobook right before a family road trip. Unlike many of my other childhood favorites, this one holds up incredibly well, with fantastic characters and an intriguing mystery. Bonus props to audiobook narrator Jeff Woodman, who did a bang-up job bringing these characters to life.

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window: a Novel / A.J. Finn, 427 p.

I loved being completely engrossed in this disquieting and creepy novel.  Anna, formerly a successful child psychologist, is stuck in her house, with a severe case of agoraphobia.  She entertains herself with DVDs of Hitchcock and other old suspense films, lots of merlot, and by watching her neighbors.  When a new family moves in across the park, Anna sees something terrible through their parlor window. At least, she might have seen something terrible.  The real and the imagined are very hard to tease apart here, and suspense builds to a satisfying conclusion.  If occasionally the reader can see some of the surprises coming, it doesn't detract from an excellent reading experience. 


Absolutely Almost

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff  288 pp.

Albie is a fifth-grader who has learning difficulties. No matter how hard he tries he just can't quite get things right. His parents are mostly absent from his life due to work but keep setting unrealistic expectations for him to accomplish. His grandfather thinks he will end up "in a ditch" since being forced to attend public school after getting kicked out of the expensive private school he attended. Albie is teased and bullied at school. Enter Calista, the "not-a-babysitter" who accepts him as he is, helps him learn to deal with life's challenges. and realize his self-worth. This is a great book and one of my selections for this year's 4th-6th grade book club. The downloadable audiobook was read by Noah Galvin who gave Albie the perfect voice.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Any Man

Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018) 272 pages

This novel is structured around the lives of a number of men who have been sexually assaulted by an unknown woman rapist. The accounts of all their horrific, yet different experiences are related almost poetically. For each, I felt that I was inside their minds as they dealt with the aftermath: their physical pain, their mental anguish, and the second-guessing, as well as the harsh assessments and terrible jokes at their expense as these serial attacks became known to the public. I felt very protective of these male characters, and was very vested in watching them try to move forward, often with their lives intersecting in some manner.

I read this book because a library patron could not just leave the book on the counter to be checked back in after she read it. She needed to tell me how profoundly affected she was by this work. She said she couldn't really describe the story, instead flipping the pages toward me to show all the white space, saying the author had been primarily known for her poetry until now. I am grateful for this introduction to this powerful novel.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine  298 pp.

Following the forced desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus ordered all the high schools in Little Rock to be closed during the 1958-9 to stop "race mixing" in the schools. This fictional account of that school year focuses on a junior high student named Marlee who is painfully shy. With the help of her new friend, Liz, Marlee begins to overcome her inability to talk to people. Then it is discovered that Liz is an African-American passing as white. In spite of parental orders, the girls continue to see each other. The political situation in town becomes heated and Marlee finds herself in the middle of the dispute, all the while coming into her own voice. This is an excellent story about the often overlooked events that followed the Little Rock Nine's entry into the school. The "n" word is used in the book a few times but always in the context of the racist members of the community and it is made clear that its use is unacceptable.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Letters to my Palestinian neighbor

Letters to my Palestinian neighbor / Yossi Klein Halevi, 207 pgs.

A set of letters from an Israeli author (who also wrote the Sophie Brody award winning Like Dreamers) talking to his very near neighbors, who are Palestinians who live literally on the other side of the hill that he lives on.  The letters are heart felt and talk about his personal history, the history of Israel and the Jewish people and the relationship with their Arab Palestinian neighbors. You can learn so much from this book, I know I did.  Wonderfully narrated by the author.

Another Brooklyn

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016) 175 pages

Another Brooklyn follows four girls in the 1970s: Angela, Gigi, Sylvia, and August. August finds the other three after moving to Brooklyn with her father and brother, and watching them through her apartment window above. Incredibly to her, she is welcomed into the group when she finally approaches them, despite what August's mother had once warned her about, not being able to trust other women. The girls support each other through their coming of age, and accept that some of them have secrets that they aren't able to share with the group. But then again, maybe August's mother was right...

The way Woodson handles dialogue makes the novel somewhat haunting. Instead of speech couched within quotation marks, Woodson uses italicized snippets, sometimes alone, sometimes sprinkled within her descriptive paragraphs, always making me hang on to the words, sensing there is much feeling within the dialogue.

I'd been wanting to read something by Jacqueline Woodson, and I found this short novel very satisfying.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Two of Us

The Two of Us by Andy Jones (2015) 326 pages

William Fisher and Ivy Lee had a love affair. They'd hardly known each other before everything changed with their pregnancy. The story, told from Fisher's point of view, follows the relationship from a mostly sexual one, to that of prospective parents of twins. Fisher's job producing television commercials isn't exactly fulfilling, but he's motivated to keep the money coming in, even if it's from selling toilet paper or tampons, to help prepare for his babies. He often wonders why Ivy had indicated that contraceptives weren't needed, but he can't bring himself to ask her about it; the timing is never right.

Preparing to parent together when one doesn't really know one's partner proves to be a challenge, a challenge made trickier when Ivy's bear of a brother comes to stay in their small flat for a time. Indeed, there's a whole cast of characters who are believable, and Fisher's point of view is spot-on, vacillating between his foibles and annoyances and his deeper, more thoughtful times.

The story is written by a Brit and set in England; the British terms are endearing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

There there, by Tommy Orange


The “there there” in the title is not a comforting “There, there” but a quote from Gertrude Stein who famously said, of her hometown Oakland, “There is no there there.”  This isn’t, as I once assumed, an insult to the city, but means that what she remembers is gone.  Tommy Orange’s first novel is set in Oakland, where the author also was raised.  He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.  The reader is introduced to the fairly large cast characters in short vignettes.  Each person has ties, close or distant, to his or her Native-American past.  Through these various viewpoints, Orange portrays the situation of the “urban Indian,” which is largely unknown outside of their communities.  One character is a young man with fetal alcohol syndrome who is painfully aware of his limitations and the facial characteristics that mark him as different.  One is a grandmother raising her alcoholic daughter’s three sons.  Another has fallen in with a bad crowd.  Many are related in ways they don’t know and all will come together in a climactic scene at the Big Oakland Powwow.  The book owes a debt to Sherman Alexie, which the author acknowledges, but the fresh voice is his own.  294 pp.

Talking with my daughter about the economy

Talking to my daughter about the economy / Yanis Varoufakis, 209 pgs.

Varoufakis is the former finance minister of Greece, yes the country.  He knows a few things about the economy and capitalism.  More important is his ability to talk about these things in simple terms.  Terms his pre-teen daughter can understand.  His daughter may be a little more tuned into these topics than her peers...what we have here is something YOU can understand (and me).  I like the clear language and the examples.  Lots of good stuff for econ nerds.

Conan Doyle for the Defense

Conan Doyle for the Defense: the True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer / Margalit Fox, 319 p.

First-rate true crime writing and much more: Fox takes the story of a brutal 1908 murder of a wealthy Glasgow woman and the Jewish foreigner who was punished for it and draws smart, intriguing connections to both the Holocaust and the present day.  Eloquent discussions of otherization, racism, and profiling that enhance rather than distract from the specificity of the crime and its investigation. 

Helpful footnotes, plentiful photos, and strong indexing and bibliography.  Highly recommended. 

Dancing Bears


Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life under Tyranny/ Witold Szablowski, 233 p.

A very clever weaving of accounts of people struggling in the wake of post-communism in Bulgaria, Cuba, Poland, Ukraine, Albania, Estonia, Serbia, and Georgia.  The connecting thread, of course, is those  bears, whose story takes up the first half of this book.   The bears were owned by Bulgarian Roma and as a condition of that country's entry into the EU were rehabilitated in a sort of sanctuary dedicated to teaching them to be free. 

Occasionally the metaphor is strained, but mostly it works well to highlight the oddities and challenges of post-communist life for millions of people.  Thought -provoking.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann  338 pp.

Patrick gave a good description of this book when he blogged about it. I don't have much more to add other than it is one more piece of the history of appalling treatment of Native Americans in this country. The author's research was very well done.

The Silence of the Girls


The silence of the girls / Pat Barker, 291 p. (Advance readers edition)

Barker's Regeneration trilogy, a WWI story, is one of my longtime favorites.  Silence looks again at women, men, and war, this time at a slice of the Iliad story.  The Trojan war is nearly at an end when Briseis, a young Trojan noblewoman, is captured and given to Achilles as a prize.  Told primarily from Briseis' viewpoint with occasional chapters given to Achilles,  the novel at first feels like fairly conventional historical fiction meant (laudably) to illuminate the experience of women in places where those stories have been neglected.  Barker even indulges in an almost-cliche, that of the strong, smart downtrodden woman who carves a small place for herself as a skilled nurse or healer.

So I was underwhelmed for the first two thirds.  Then, as the action intensifies and Briseis becomes a pawn in a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, which dispute leads to the death of Achilles' dear friend and lover Patroclus, Barker finds her way to something fresh and good. 

Featuring other Barker trademarks: relentless but realistic gore, a bisexual leading man (Regeneration readers, remember Billy Pryor?), and subtle characterization, especially where Achilles is concerned. I ended up enjoying this thoroughly.

Friday, July 13, 2018

So close to being the sh*t, y'all don't even know

So close to being the sh*t, y'all don't even know / Retta, read by the author, 262 pgs.

You may know Retta from Parks and Recreation, Good Girls, from her stand-up or as Twitter royalty.  No matter, you will learn new things about her obsession for the LA Kings (yes the hockey team), Hamilton, and expensive purses.  This book is funny and the narration is wonderfully done as only the author can do.  Fans will love this and newcomers will find something to laugh at too.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Possession: a Romance, by A. S. Byatt


I first read Possession when it came out in 1990, then again for my book club a few years later.  Now, a quarter of a century later still, I have revisited this favorite book in order to discuss it with a much younger, but much more erudite, friend.  The rewards of rereading it were substantial.  The basic plot is that two contemporary scholars, working independently, discover a possible very personal connection between two famous Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.  Within the framework of the 1980s story, we learn through the poets’ letters, poems, and fairy tales, as well as others’ diaries and modern-day scholarly research– all written by Byatt and all excellent – how their connection developed, how in influenced their work, and what the startling outcome of their relationship was.  Soon other scholars and interested parties begin to get wind of this possible discovery, which will change everything they believed they knew about these writers.  And a chase is on.  Weaving together mythology, spiritualism, Victorian sensibility, Pre-Raphaelitism, natural history, and modern-day scholarship and feminism, Byatt skillfully keeps all these balls in the air while at the same time creating an engaging love story and convoluted mystery.  You do have to have a certain tolerance for a lot of long poetry and flowery letters – I loved them all.  To get the most out of the novel, don’t skip anything!  Just ravishing!  555 pp.