Friday, August 31, 2018

Born a Crime

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, 288 pages

In this wonderful memoir, comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah recounts his experiences growing up in South Africa. The son of a black woman and a white man, Noah was literally a crime when he was born during Apartheid, and spent his early years seeing his father only in private and walking a distance from his mother as they went about their daily business in public. Because of race, Noah never fit easily into any groups, something that is touched on throughout the stories of his youth and teen years.

This was a fascinating look at young life in Apartheid and its aftermath, with wonderful insights into the many cultures of South Africa. I listened to the audiobook, which was read by Noah, and it was particularly fantastic, given his ability with languages and accents. Highly recommended.

Allmen and the Dragonflies

Allmen and the Dragonflies by Martin Suter, 187 pages

Johann Friedrich von Allmen's father was a savvy businessman, amassing such a fortune by the time, that Johann Friedrich would never have to work a day in his life. Unfortunately, Johann Friedrich von Allmen's father didn't account for his son's extravagant spending. When the story opens, Allmen (as he prefers to be called) is now living in the gardening shed of the Zurich villa he had to sell to finance his lifestyle (which still includes season tickets to the opera and four-star restaurants every night), stealing vases and small artifacts to sell in order to pay off his creditors. He is just beginning to panic when a chance encounter with a glamorous woman brings him in proximity to five rare dragonfly bowls created by French artist Emile Galle. But taking the bowls sets Allmen on a dangerous path that he only hopes will pay off for him.

I enjoyed this book, which was told through short chapters that seemed to perfectly accent Allmen's lackadaisical attitude. I loved the characterization of Allmen and his rarely-paid Guatemalan servant Carlos, as well as the lengths Allmen went to to avoid revealing his empty bank account. This one was a lot of fun.

The word is murder

The word is murder / Anthony Horowitz, read by Rory Kinnear, 390 pgs.

A wealthy woman is murdered the same day she does her pre-arranged funeral.  Her son, a famous actor is murdered after her funeral.  What is going on?  Ten years ago, the woman was involved in a hit and run accident that killed one small child and permanently injured his twin brother.  Are these killings revenge?  The police contract with Hawthorne, disgraced former detective who now does contract work.  He is interested in having a book written about his work and partners with the author.  Now they are a team, kind of, and they are working together despite not really knowing or liking each other too much.  Hawthorne is a brilliant investigator but the author wonders if he can do a better job solving the crime.  This is an interesting mystery that keeps you involved.  Wonderfully narrated by Rory Kinnear, the audio version is worth the time.

Three Things about Elsie

Three Things about Elsie / Joanna Cannon, 372 p.

Elsie and Florence are lifelong friends, so when Florence is threatened with the prospect of being sent from her assisted living apartment at Cherry Tree to a skilled care facility, it is Elsie who helps Florence cope.  The stakes get higher when a mysterious man takes up residence at Cherry Tree whom Florence and Elsie thought was long dead.  Who will believe Florence?  Is the man still as dangerous as he once was?  A sweet, cozy, and very English story that's astute and not at all syrupy, I enjoyed this quite a bit. 

Severance

Severance: a Novel / Ling Ma, 291 p.

Candace Chen - in two alternating before and after narratives - is devoted to the routine of work life overseeing the production of bibles, and heading cross-country with a band of survivors remaining after the American population becomes 'fevered.'   The fevered sound like zombies, except that they don't eat anyone, and are almost sweet, at least until their body parts start rotting away.  They remain stuck in loops of routine, setting the table, reading books, driving, folding clothes.  Ma stuffs a lot of motifs and ideas into a brief work: materialism, Chinese manufacturing, the challenges of 1st generation immigrants, not to mention finding love and meaningful work.  As heavy as that sounds, this is a great, consuming read, and frequently quite funny.  Recommended.

Maigret and the Killer

Maigret and the Killer by Georges Simenon (1969)  186 pages

Here is another of my forays into a new-to-me mystery series, this series about French Police Superintendent Maigret. This particular book was written closer to the end of Simenon's writing career. The prolific Maigret series, containing 75 novels and 28 short stories, had its first book published in 1931 and the last in 1972. In this story, Maigret is age 63.

The story opens with Maigret and his wife dining at their friends' home, when someone fetches the friend, a doctor, because a man is dying on the sidewalk outside. Maigret and the doctor rush out, but the young man dies soon after reaching the hospital, a victim of multiple stab wounds. The young man, born into a wealthy family, was wearing a tape recorder around his neck. When the tape inside it is played, it becomes apparent that the man was taping snippets of conversations that were occurring around him in restaurants, bars, etc. We learn that the young man had been making such tapes for at least a year. The murder investigation begins with the premise that perhaps something he recorded put him at risk. In fact, one of the conversations on the tape, made the same night he was murdered, led police to foil an attempted robbery of famous paintings from a wealthy man's weekend home.

Even as the police are elated to have found the likely suspects to twenty high-end robberies because of the dead man's tapes, Maigret is left with uneasiness about who actually could have committed the murder. As the Paris newspapers speculate about who the murderer can be, they start receiving letters from someone who purports to be the murderer. Then Maigret himself begins to receive telephone calls from someone who says he's the murderer.  Maigret does not have the call tracked, but speaks honestly and carefully to the man on the phone, trying to learn everything he can about him. I embraced this fascinating turn in the novel and its follow-through. I recommend this book and definitely plan to read more of Simenon's work.

The best cook in the world

The best cook in the world: tales from my Momma's table / Rick Bragg, read by the author, 390 pgs.

Rick Bragg's mom doesn't own a cookbook but she was taught how to cook the old fashioned way, she watched her mother and other wonderful cooks because she was interested even as a young girl.  She is confident and a natural but unfortunately gave birth to three boys, none of whom can reliably prepare toast.  Rick realized nobody was learning about his mother's cooking and that her abilities were like few others.  He started interviewing her about her food and the stories came out about where the recipe originated or stories related to the food.  Turns out those stories were as priceless as the recipe itself.  This is one long audiobook but once I started, I didn't want to stop.  Many great characters and much great food.  If you want to cook it, you may need the print version but the stories in Bragg's voice are priceless.

Jerusalem Stands Alone

Jerusalem Stands Alone by Mahmoud Shukair, 180 pages.
Shukair, a 77 year-old playwright, novelist, and writer of all sorts, presents a series of interlocking vignettes following an extended family around the city of Jerusalem. Each view is about a page long and all of them are beautifully written. In many of the stories, the characters wander around the city, going about their lives, seeing the city as it is and as it was. The narrator says of his life in the city, "I am forty and now, you see, the war is forty-two. The city is more ancient than either of us , too many years to count. While members of the extended family focus on either their present circumstances or problems from their past, the narrator and one or two others see through the centuries sometimes, meeting soldiers armed with swords and lances, or donning armor themselves to defend the city they see. All of the characters must navigate the paranoia, the actual betrayals, and the hidden fears that are the results of a city frequently at war and always in physical danger.
Translated by Nicole Fares.

A Darkness More Than Night

A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly, 418 pages.
The seventh in the Harry Bosch series has the Los Angeles police detective arresting and then testifying against a Hollywood director. David Storey, the defendant, has been accused of killing a young woman and then moving her body and setting the scene to deflect attention from himself. While the trial is gearing up, former FBI profiler Terry McCaleb is called in to help with a separate murder investigation that seems to be zeroing in on Bosch as a suspect. Harry has to work to keep his case from falling apart as he also tries to find out the truth about this second murder. fast-paced and well constructed. The audio book was narrated by the excellent Len Cariou.

You Can Never Finda a Rickshaw When it Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day

You Can Never Finda a Rickshaw When it Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day by Mo Willems, 393 pages.
Mo Willems took a trip around the world in 1991 and he put together a collection of cartoons, one from each day, recording his journey. The drawings are less polished than a lot of his work, but that shouldn't be too surprising.
Mo was backpacking, traveling as cheaply as possible and drawing the people and places that he found interesting.

Transparence of the World

Transparence of the World by Jean Follain, translated from the French by W. S. Merwin, 131 pages.
Follain died at the age of 68 (or maybe 67; Merwin talks about his death, hit by a car in 1971, but he doesn't mention the month). Follain lived through both world wars, worked as a lawyer, and wrote poetry.
Many of the poems evoke a live lived simply, with work, food, love, and death all discussed and allowed to pass.
The poem "Domestic Life," speaks of
"vegetables that are scraped or peeled
to nourish beautiful girls" quickly followed by
"animals bled in the broad day
whose grating cry
is lost in the light."
Strange and moving poems. I feel like I should smile ruefully when I read them, and then say quietly to myself something like, "well, ain't that a kick in the head?" The poems leave you strangely rueful, aware that it's all passing to quickly, too violently, and that it's happening that way for everyone you see.
As I was writing this I opened the book and went looking for that one sad poem, about the man who had died young, and it turned out that it was almost all of them.
A child is born
in a vast landscape
half a century later
he is simply a dead soldier. . .

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The House of Broken Angels

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, 326 pages.
Big Angel, Miguel Angel de la Cruz, believes that he has come to the end of his life. After his mother's funeral, as he prepares for what he believes will be his final birthday, he looks back on his life and shares stories with his relatives. Along with his half-brother, Little Angel, he tries to unravel some of the sticky secrets of their shared histories in Mexico and in the US. The de la Cruz family has lived on both sides of the border for generations. There are a lot of secrets and a lot of burdens that have been carried too long. An interesting story that is very well told. Well worth the read.

The Grace in Older Women

The Grace in Older Women (A Lovejoy Mystery) by Jonathan Gash (1995) 279 pages

This time I decided to try a mystery series written by a man with a man, Lovejoy, as the main character. Lovejoy is always hard up for money, quite an expert at antiques, rather a ladies' man in his scruffy, unwashed way, and a con man (though of course he doesn't see it that way).

There's a long set-up as Lovejoy moves from person to person, trying to get a meal, sex or a [con] job. He's frustrating and loveable, and in his first person narrative, he's quite a teacher of the antique business, both legit and forgeries. When his friend Tryer is murdered, Lovejoy tries to help the man's girlfriend (well, sometimes). He eventually thinks he knows who killed Tryer, but meanwhile, he's also arranging a huge exhibition of forgeries at great cost to others, while promising to pay up soon. His vetting of the forgeries for the exhibition is quite a production in itself. The action is nonstop.

This British author's writing is colorful, but there were times when I thought I'd need a "British-colloquial-English" to "American-standard-English" translator! I wasn't at all surprised to learn that there were 73 episodes of a Lovejoy mystery series on British television, as entertaining as these characters are.


What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!

What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! by Agatha Christie (1957) 185 pages

Elspeth McGillicuddy was in a train when she witnessed a murder occurring in a passing train. She reported it immediately to the ticket taker and then to the station master at the next stop, and even to the police. The trouble was that she was an older woman and thus not taken seriously, plus no dead body was found on any trains in the next few days.

Her friend, Jane Marple, quite an old woman herself, hatches a plan to find the body after scoping out train time tables and railway maps, long before these days of satellite imagery on Google. She hires a young woman to take a job at an estate near the likeliest place that a body would have been thrown from the train. The woman locates the body in a sarcophagus in an outbuilding on the estate, but the mystery only deepens as the body remains unidentified. An old man, Luther Crackenthorpe, owns the estate. His relationship with his three sons is antagonistic while his dutiful daughter tends to his needs. When the Scotland Yard investigation of the dead woman stalls out, deaths follow in the Crackenthorpe family. Miss Marple keeps up with the investigation from the sideline, and (of course) she knows who the murderer is long before I do.

This mystery is traditional Agatha Christie, with its fast pace and suspense.

From the corner of the oval

From the corner of the oval / Beck Dory-Stein, 349 pgs.

How does answering an ad on Craigslist lead to working in the White House and traveling with the president?  Read this book and find out.  Beck Dory-Stein improbable story starts with applying for a job she isn't really interested in doing so she blows off the interview.  She gets a call back and ends up as a stenographer for the president...of the United States.  This memoir covers her time at the White House but this is no typical political memoir.  Yes, some events are detailed here but mostly it is about her own journey, hook-ups and friendships.  Fun to read but not recommended for political junkies.

The Mandela Pot

The Mandela Plot by Kenneth Bonert, 466 pages.
Bonert's novel (mostly) takes place in 1980's Johannesberg. Botha is still president, but De Klerk is on the horizon. Sanctions are in place but they don't intrude too far into the life of the protagonist, Martin Helger. Martin is around 14 when the book opens, 17 during the bulk of the story and in his 20s in the weirder ending chapters. Martin doesn't have many friends, and this seems like an almost standard, bittersweet story of an awkward young man trying to connect to other, albeit set in South Africa as apartheid begins melting down, but as the book takes some odd turns. Martin makes some choices as the book progresses that could endanger him and his family. His infatuation with an American student leads him to cross path with a member of the security forces, a man with reason to hate Martin's father. And a scene from early in the book is slowly revealed as the book progresses and shows Martin to be someone other than a misguided young man. The plot device used to deliver us to an unexpected end, and Martin's changing relationship with his brother seemed a little forced to me and changed my opinion of the book.

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton, 282 pages.
This was, for me, that rare enjoyable book with no likable characters. Marion has left her husband Nathan behind as she tries to stay ahead of the audit that is certain to expose her embezzlement. As we hear from both of them as they narrate their stories, it's hard to feel sympathy for either. Nathan is a self-absorbed and entitled writer and Marion seems incapable of true feelings for others. Throughout the book, Culliton does an excellent job of keeping the book engaging and readable, and shows her characters (or allows her characters to show) their somewhat buried humanity.
The people from whom Marion has liberated the funds are almost less likable than Marion and Nathan. It's only Ginny and Jane, the daughters of the Palms, who worry the reader. How will these two survive with an uncaring and now absent mother and a father who struggles to notice them? Culliton gives us an interesting read without easy answers.

Who is Vera Kelly?

Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht, 266 pages.

We meet Vera when she has disappointed her mother. Vera has been kicked out of school, institutionalized, and disowned. We meet her again nine years later in Buenos Aires working for the US, evaluating opposition to Argentine leadership.
Knecht does a great job with the sense of time and place, convincing the reader (or at least a sometimes inattentive reader like myself) that this is 1966 Argentina.
Vera is an interesting character, too. She is alone in the world, seemingly always will be. While she is more comfortable with herself and her sexuality in Greenwich Village, she gives us the idea that she is always detached from others. The story moves along nicely, jumping back and forth between her younger years in New York and the turmoil in Argentina.
I listened to this through our Overdrive collection.
Narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Flight

Flight by Sherman Alexie  181 pp.

I first read and blogged about this book about four years ago. I just re-read it in preparation for the Great Stories Club Grant workshop on the theme of "Empathy: The Cost of Switching Sides." From the perspective of looking at empathy, I understand why this was one of the selections available. However, I had to select three titles out of five and chose a different three. (Watch for upcoming blogs on those titles.) I still agree with my earlier review of the novel but this time I grasped more of the way the main character, Zits, learns empathy. It's a very good story but watch out for lots of profanity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Robin

Robin by Dave Itzkoff  529 pp.

In August of 2014 the world was shocked at the news of the suicide of hugely talented, intelligent, and wildly hilarious actor and comedian, Robin Williams. This biography covers Williams life from his upper middle class childhood, through his days at Julliard and his career as a stand-up comedian which led to a long and varied acting career. He was a man who obsessively worked at his trade to make his improvised lightning wit his stock-in-trade. His near photographic memory and instant recall of things he saw or heard rendered him capable of a spontaneity that brought laughter to millions. Behind the humor was a man with his share of problems; substance abuse, poor choices of film roles, failed marriages, and increasing bouts of depression haunted him. When his body began failing him, first with a heart valve replacement, then a misdiagnosis of Parkinson's disease, Williams became a changed man. Not until his autopsy was it discovered Williams had Lewy Body Dementia, a disease which can affect movement, Altzheimer's-like cognitive, depression, and other problems. Friends and family did their best to help but Williams had never discussed suicide to anyone his choice of that ending came as a total surprise. In spite of the rumors, he was not under the influence of alcohol and drugs when he died. Itzkoff has written a heartfelt biography that describes the man, his faults, and his glories without aggrandizement.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Clue

Clue by Paul Allor, art by Nelson Daniel, 152 pages

We all know the game upon which this comic is based: a bunch of people with colorful names gather in a mansion and Mr. Boddy turns up dead. But who did it? And in what room? And with which murder weapon? True to form, this comic book adaptation brings together the whole familiar crew and gives them all plenty of motive to off one another, which, of course, happens with regularity throughout the book. Red herrings, double-crossing, and suspicious moves are all over the place here, but what really made this fun were the multiple references to the excellent 1985 movie by the same name. A few lines of dialogue were lifted directly from the movie, and much like the film, one of the issues included here was given one of three random endings. It wasn't the best book I've ever read, but it sure was fun and it really makes me want to re-watch the movie.

Come Again

Come Again by Nate Powell, 272 pages

It's the late 1970s and a small community in the Ozarks is still clinging to the last gasps of the Love Generation. A close-knit community like Haven Station is a hard place to keep secrets, but a couple of families have managed to do so for several years and only the disappearance of a child can make that secret unravel. Fresh on the heels of winning the National Book Award (with John Lewis for March), Powell presents a twisty tale that ties together secrets, longing, community, difficult choices, and monsters that seem most real when discussed around a campfire. It's a haunting tale, beautifully told.

Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 599 pp.

This was the 2018 Summer Reading selection and a novel I had not read before. Christa's review gives a good synopsis of what the book is about. The unnamed protagonist is earnest in his attempts to do what is expected of him until he comes to the realization that there is no one, including himself, that he can count on to treat him honestly and fairly. While he is invisible in many ways throughout the book, the invisibility he settles on - living a reclusive, hidden life - results from his experiences and his discouragement with society. Given the subject matter, it seems odd to say I enjoyed it. Perhaps it is better to say I appreciated it. I look forward to seeing what the 2019 selection will be.

Two steps forward

Two steps forward / Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, 366 pgs.

Artist Zoe is reeling from the death of her husband and decides to reconnect with her friend from college.  Martin is reeling from a difficult divorce and impending unemployment.  They both end up hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a path through France and Spain that attracts pilgrims.  This walk will change your life.  Told in alternating perspectives, Zoe and Martin cross paths with each other and a larger set of interesting characters.  They stop and start a bit of a romance but the interesting parts are about the walk and the relationships with others along the way.  Not as good as Simsion's The Rosie Project and maybe a little too long, I was intrigued that the author's have done the hike themselves. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Invisible Man

Invisible man, Ralph Ellison, 599 pgs.

Our summer reading choice for 2018, a powerful novel of a young African American man who leaves his home in the south and goes to Harlem to seek his fortune.  Unnamed, the protagonist is involved in a series of events that reinforce his invisibility...often he is not seen in society.  Over time, he witnesses violence, is harassed and learns that many can not be trusted...they will use you and discard you.  The book is widely regarded as one of the best of the 20th century.  It is packed with imagery, meaning and is often reminiscent of jazz solo.  After not reading it for many years, it was good to revisit.

Penelope Lemon: Game On!

Penelope Lemon: Game On! by Inman Majors, 221 pages

Penelope Lemon is a twice-divorced, underemployed mom who lives with her parents. She's trying to get back into the dating game (via a couple of online services that her mom so kindly signed her up for), but without much luck. Penelope's happily-married friends don't really understand what she's going through, and finding out (from her 9-year-old son, no less!) that her ex-husband has a nice new house and a new girlfriend really doesn't help her morale. But perhaps the appearance of a like-minded single mom at her son's baseball game will make all the difference.


This is such a funny book. The characters are fantastic (I LOVE Penelope's reactions to the craziness going on around her) and the situations are hilarious. It's a quick read, and so much fun. I'm gonna be recommending this like crazy.

The overstory, by Richard Powers


Richard Powers is a polymath who in his twelve novels has immersed himself in many different disciplines – genetics, music, and artificial intelligence among others – to the extent that you would believe he had deeply and exclusively studied each.  In The overstory his themes are ecology, the environment, and specifically trees.  All kinds of trees, but primarily those which once blanketed much of this country.  The novels ten main human characters are introduced one by one in separate chapters at the beginning of the book – each chapter a novella unto itself.  The trees themselves are characters – one mourns the loss of chestnuts and American elms, and the imminent destruction of old-growth redwood forests.  It is the plight of the latter that draws the characters together.  New discoveries about the ability of trees to communicate with each other and the interconnectedness of all parts of a mature forest galvanize those who care about the forests into action.  At 500+ pages of dense and gorgeous prose, the book may seem a bit over the top to some (the pun is intentionally as some characters are literally living in the tops of trees to protect them), but many readers will find everything about this book engrossing and enlightening.  I admit to being a big fan of Powers’ writing (and of trees….) and hope many people give this epic story the attention it deserves.  512 pp.

Invitation to a bonfire, by Adrienne Celt


Coincidentally, and before I knew I was soon to read Nabokov’s Pale fire, I picked up this new book by a young author.  It riffs on the relationship between Nabokov and his wife, Vera, who had a famously unusual marriage.  She devoted herself to him and his work, and also snatched Lolita literally out of the flames more than once.  In this novel, a young girl, Zoya, is smuggled out of Soviet Russia by do-good benefactors in the 1920s and given a new life at an expensive private girls school.  Not too surprisingly, she has difficulty fitting in.  She takes refuge in the school’s new greenhouse and the study of botany.  She continues to work at the school in the greenhouse after she graduates, despite the abuse she endures from the snobby young students.  Actually, she has few other options.  Then a famous Russian writer, Leo Orlov, along with his devoted and elusive wife, Vera, shows up to teach at the school.  His works have been exceptionally important to Zoya in her isolation, and she quickly falls into a sexual relationship with him.  Told through Zoya’s confessional writings, letters between the Orlovs, and the school's oral histories of these events years later, it packs quite a surprise at the end.  Even without the backstory of the Nabokov’s marriage, it is a fascinating exploration of identity. 234 pp.