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.

Speak no evil

Speak no evil / Uzodinma Iweala, read by Prentice Onayemi & Julia Whelan, 214 pgs.

In many ways, Niru leads a charmed life.  Bound for Harvard and finishing up his senior year, he is a top student, a track star and has a best friend, Meredith.  But he also has a secret, he is gay.  When his very conservative Nigerian parents get a hint of this, they send him to Nigeria and employ a religious "fix" for this problem.  When he returns home, he and Meredith don't seem to have time for each other.  He tries to be the son his parents want him to be but he can't.  He embarks on a relationship with a man he meets at the shoe store.  He bristles at all the restrictions in his life. Then he and Meredith reconnect.  What happens next is tragic and the books shifts to Meredith's point of view.  Prentice Onayemi & Julia Whelan do a great job narrating this modern tale of identity and struggle.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham, 402 pages. Narrated by Fred Sanders.

Meacham shows how American history has been hijacked by partisan, racist, hateful asshole-ness before and how it has recovered before, giving us a measure of hope for the future. Chapters on Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt show their flaws, their racist views, and their shortcomings, but they also show how these presidents tried to change things; how they grew, at least a little bit.
A nice overview of some parts of American history.
Sanders does a very good job on the narration.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson, 403 pages. Audio is read by multiple narrators.

Christa and another coworker, Kathleen, maybe, had spoken well of this book back when it came out, in 2015. It took me a while to read it, or rather to listen to it and read it, but I am so glad I did.

The writing is beautiful and the arc of the book is amazing. The characters are so present, so clear; they're sad, or at least in pitiable circumstances, but they are not asking for pity. All of the characters are ware of what a mess their lives are, aware of they got there, and they are often at least thinking about changing their behavior. Her protagonists are working women, nurses, house-cleaners. There's no romanticizing the work, and no romanticizing the attendant problems with spouses, parents, siblings, and alcohol.
Really an amazing book.
It took me far too long to realize that these were the same characters (parallel characters? Is Charlotte, Carlotta also Lucille?)  appearing again and again.

I almost never read forewords or introductions to works of fiction (unless we're going to discuss the book), but since I listened to the first half of this book, I kind of had to. It was only because of Lydia Davis's foreword that I was aware of the parallels between the stories and the author's life; Davis quoting the author, "I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie."
Very glad I read this.

Echo: The Complete Edition

Echo: The Complete Edition, by Terry Moore, 590 pages.

 Julie is going to be divorced soon and wanders out into the wilderness around Moon Lake to get some peace and take some photos. It turns out that she is in the wrong place at the wrong time as a disagreement between Foster, the evil head of a nanotechnology / weapons research group,  and Annie, the non-evil inventor of the tech, leads to a nuclear explosion. Julie is transformed by the event, as is a nearby crazed drifter. Annie's boyfriend, Dillon, eventually joins forces with Julie, maybe-not-quite-dead Annie, and Ivy, a freelance operative, to try and stop Foster from misusing the new tech and ending the world. It's a relatively long and complicated graphic novel, but the story is well told and the art supports the story. A good read.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Victor LaValle's Destroyer

Victor LaValle's Destroyer by Victor LaValle, art by Dietrich Smith, 160 pages

As a brilliant scientist and descendant of Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Josephine Baker has a bit of a legacy. Fortunately for her, she's chosen to embrace her ancestor's ideas, and use nanobots to expand upon his vision of creating immortality through scientific advances. And it seems that she has, at least to a degree, succeeded where Dr. Frankenstein failed, reanimating the body of her young son. This is a powerful and wonderful graphic novel that, yes, builds on the story of Frankenstein and his monster, but uses it to shine a light on the spate of young black men who have been (and continue to be) killed by police officers. This was a truly excellent book, and I highly recommend it, particularly to those it will rankle.


Cosmos by Carl Sagan  365 pp.

I read this book back when the PBS series was a thing. Last year an audiobook version was produced with LeVar (Reading Rainbow / Geordi La Forge) Burton as the main narrator along with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and Ann Druyan, Sagan's collaborator on the television series. Burton does an excellent job of narration although I couldn't help but think of all the episodes of "Reading Rainbow" I watched with my kids. It was nice to revisit this book from long ago. And yes, the word 'billions" is very noticeably used frequently but Burton doesn't give it that distinctive Sagan style. The only downside to this audio version was the introduction by Ann Druyan because I found her voice not particularly pleasant.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, 531 pages

Eleven years ago, King Saran ordered the mass murder of the maji of Orisha in retaliation for an uprising against him, leaving behind orphaned diviners — white-haired children with magical potential that will never be reached (well, not if King Saran has anything to say about it). Now, 17-year-old diviner Zelie and Saran's daughter Amari have been thrown together in a quest to bring magic back to Orisha, with the king's ruthless guards hot on their tail.

For a long book, this reads incredibly quickly, with plenty of page-turning action. That said, the characters are nothing to sneeze at. I particularly like the internal conflicts of Amari's brother Inan, who is also captain of King Saran's guards. I don't know that this is quite the "next Harry Potter" as it's been called, but it is a good YA fantasy, and I look forward to seeing what Adeyemi has planned for the rest of the series.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Monk of Mokha

The Monk of Mokha / Dave Eggers, read by Dion Graham, 336 pgs.

In interesting story of an intrepid entrepreneur who decides to elevate his culture by importing coffee from its origin, Yemen.  Of course there are a few stumbling blocks.  Mokhtar is 25 years old and drifting between sales jobs starting at Banana Republic and at the start of this journey, he is a door man.  Also, he has never tasted coffee...but why should this impinge on his plans to learn a LOT about coffee, become a Q taster (the highest level of coffee expert) and importer?  Well, Yemen is also in the midst of a civil war so that also isn't helping.  Against all odds, Mokhtar just keeps pushing forward, not sure what he is doing but confident he will figure it out.  An engaging story of someone with a classic American Dream who is dedicated to pulling it off.  Dion Graham's narration adds plenty to the story and it is nice to hear all of the places and people's name with correct pronunciation.

Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin by Arne Jysch and Volker Kutscher, 216 pages.

Gereon Rath had to leave the Cologne police after shooting the wrong man in the line of duty. He had to do it, but he was still forced out. Now he's in Berlin, working in Vice, trying to get transferred to Homicide. When a car with a body is pulled from the river Rath works with a Homicide clerk, Charlotte Ritter, on identifying the victim and figuring out the crime (Nazis, it was Nazis). Based on the books  (by Kuscher) that inspired the German television series of the same name, the graphic novels are well-executed with some details different from the show.

A false report

A false report: a true story of rape in America / T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong, read by Hillary Huber, 291 pgs.

Marie woke one night with a man in her room.  He spent several hours with her, raping her, threatening her and taking photos he said he would show to others if she reported him.  She called the police when he left.  They spent quite a bit of time trying to poke holes in her story.  She ended up telling them she had made it up.  Two years later, a serial rapist is caught in Colorado and he has a camera with Marie's picture on it.  Marie had been charged with making a false report.  The police departments in Colorado had collaborated and shared information about similar crimes and ended up catching the perpetrator.  This book tells of the excellent police work in Colorado and the way the departments in the Seattle area failed victims and the public.  Riveting and horrifying.