Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Eat me

Eat me: the food and philosophy of Kenny Shopsin / Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno, 287 pgs.

Shopsin started out owning a corner grocery store in his NYC neighborhood that eventually became a restaurant.  He had a menu with an amazing amount of options on it, sometimes up to 900.  He and his wife Eve raised their kids in the family business, now some of them help run it.  Kenny certainly has a philosophy and he lives by it.  People can get kicked out of his place for doing things that piss him off.  He likes cooking for people and talking to customers.  He is there to make a living but never to figure out a way to maximize income.  I love that his life makes so much sense. On of my favorite quotes, talking about the chicken-fried hamburger, "It is really terrific, although, to be honest, I do't think I have ever eaten one."  This book also has a bunch of recipes which makes it a total treasure.

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in US Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in US Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, 578 pages.

Vincent and Vladic do an incredible job recounting the history of the Indianapolis, a storied ship, sunk by torpedoes at the end of the war. The authors fill the book with stories of the crew members, stories of the Japanese sailors involved in its sinking, and the lengthy saga of the Captain's court martial and the subsequent attempts to clear his name. The ship itself is central to the story. Indianapolis served as Admiral Spruance's flagship during the war. She delivered the "Little Boy" atomic bomb to Tinian in preparation for its flight and detonation over Hiroshima. Indianapolis was among the last major American ships sunk in the war. And the fact that only 316 men, out of a crew of over 1100 survived the sinking and the almost five days floating in the Pacific, made it, as the title states, one of the US Navy's worst disasters ever. The book explores the various naval failures that led to the huge delay by the Navy in mounting a rescue operation. It was only by chance that a patrol bomber spotted the men in the water days after the Indianapolis had sunk. While there was plenty of blame to go around, and at least two Admirals had some possible culpability, the Captain of the Indianapolis, Charles McVay, was the only man during the war to face a Court Martial for having his ship sunk in battle. The fight to clear his name lasted until 2000.
Vincent and Vladic have written a great book, it's compelling and eminently readable.

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, 333 pages.
George Washington Black, born a slave in Barbados on Faith plantation, a horrendously brutal place, in the 1820s, finds himself a pawn in the family drama surrounding the plantation owner, Erasmus Wilde. George Washington Black becomes the personal assistant to Christopher, brother of Erasmus, known as Titch. Now known as Wash, his quick wits, and his ability to learn everything allows him to use his situation to his advantage. One day though, the Wilde family drama takes a turn and a cousin's death imperils Wash. Titch and he flee and they soon find themselves far from Barbados and the plantation, hunted by Erasmus and his lackeys. Wash travels to the Arctic with Titch. After tragedy and hardship, Wash continues his journey, from New England, to London, and onward. His explorations and adventures swirl around news of his past at Faith plantation. He often finds himself in danger, and sometimes near despair, but he continues to seek knowledge and peace.  An exciting and satisfying book. It already looks like it will be on many of this years "best of" lists, deservedly so. The downloadable audio is narrated by the always excellent Dion Graham.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions and We Should All be Feminists

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chmamanda Ngozi Adichie, 80 pages.
We Should All be Feminists by Chmamanda Ngozi Adichie, 64 pages.

Two brief, but powerful essays / collections of essays from Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah. We Should All be Feminists is based on the author's TED talk, and Dear Ijeawele is a series of essays that attempt to answer a friend's questions about raising her daughter as a feminist.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, 336 pages.

The author based this book on an account given to her by the person on whom the protagonist was based. While it makes for compelling reading, and it is a decent book, I felt that the author did not do a great job in making the protagonist seem like a believable character. Just my opinion. I am willing to believe that the person on whom this story is based was as brave, resilient, and selfless as the author tells us, but I also feel that her telling did not really do that character justice. Or, I believe the story on which it is based, but not necessarily the character in the novel.

Vincent's portraits

Vincent's portraits: paintings and drawings by Van Gogh / Ralph Skea, 112 pgs.

Although better known for his landscapes and flowers, Van Gogh considered portraits to be his most important work.  This book gives a nice overview of the development of painting styles and colors by grouping work chronologically.  The work changes depending on Van Gogh's location, his state of mind and the styles that he tries.  One thing that stays the same is his ability to capture the essence of his subject.  He often paints himself but there are many other models that appear and frequently the same people modeled multiple times.  Skea references many sources and provides a nice bibliography for further reading.  Photos never really do justice to paintings but this book is nicely done and if you can't see it in person, a decent way to consider the work.

Creative Struggle

Creative struggle / Gavin Aung Than, 146 pgs.

A lovely little reminder that even the greats have struggled with creating. Each chapter talks about a specific person and their personal story with creating.  Mary Shelley struggled with the story she was writing as part of a contest.  She could not come up with anything  but was finally blessed with an idea that came to her in a dream.  This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publishing of her dreamed story, you might have heard of it, "Frankenstein."  Sixteen other stories will convince you that you are in good company.  The last chapter is some advice from the author.

Lethal White

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, 650 pages

In this most recent Cormoran Strike book, the private detective and his partner Robin have taken up the case of a politician who is being blackmailed by someone (he won't say who) for some reason (he won't say why). Robin goes undercover in his office to do some covert poking around at the Ministry, while Strike follows up on a feeling he won't deign to call a hunch (it's a hunch) dealing with a mentally unstable man who showed up in his office, ranting about a decades-old murder that may or may not have happened. Could these two things possibly be related?

At 650 pages, Lethal White is a whopper of a book, and honestly, about 250 pages in, I was wondering what J.K Rowling Robert Galbraith was going to use the last 400 for. But then a thing happens and the reason for all those pages becomes crystal clear. It's a complex plot that intricately weaves dozens of threads together — the planning for this book must have been monstrous — and I feel that I need to read it again to fully catch all the clues. I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly Robin and Strike, who continue to evolve and grow with each new entry in this series.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Curious Beginning, by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn, 368 p.
The first in a series, A Curious Beginning introduces us to the enjoyably mouthy and delightfully eccentric natural scientist Veronica Speedwell. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her two aunts. As we meet her, both of her aunts have died, and Veronica is preparing for the life of spectacular worldwide travels of which she has dreamed, snaring rare butterflies and handsome suitors in all corners of the world. Abruptly, however, she is thrown into a mystery that may reveal the secrets of her parentage. As an opinionated, educated woman ahead of her time, she scandalizes and delights her friends and enemies alike.
I enjoyed the quick pace of this book, and the sharp dialogue between Veronica and her companions. The historical setting is well realized, and I even learned a new vocabulary word or two - Veronica being an accomplished lepidopterist, or butterfly collector. With plenty of mysteries still left to explore, I look forward to seeing Veronica on her next adventure.

The Hollow Ground

The Hollow Ground book cover

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett, 336 pages

This book took me a long time to get through. It is based on the real-life coal mine fires that devastated Pennsylvania in the 1960's. Brigid Howley is an 11 year-old girl whose life is in shambles after the coal mine has destroyed the town's local economy and made the area inhabitable. On top of that, she faces social rejection for being Irish, lives with a family curse, and has a troubled home life. I would read a chapter and then have to put to down for a day or so. However, Brigid perseveres and maintains a strong spirit despite all of the hardship she experiences. This is a great book for anyone who loves a coming-of-age story.


Transcription / Kate Atkinson read by Fenella Woolgar, 343 p.

Usually when I get a new book early after release, I feel the responsibility of spending time and thinking hard about my blog post because people will be needing this information.  In this case, I'm already number 4 posting about his book because everyone here looks forward to a new book by Atkinson.  So now I'm not going to repeat what Patrick, Kara, and Kathleen have already said.  Instead, I'll tempt you with the small part about the cute little dog Lily who touches many characters' lives and comes back to haunt Juliet.  These little interludes are one reason a book by Atkinson is so much better than most.  Nobody wants to take the dog at first but then it ends up being very popular and well loved.  I can just imagine petting those silky little ears myself.  Then we find out in the authors note that the name is used as a tribute to a real double agent that showed up in the archives. Too cool. But don't take my word for it, read it yourself.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege & Nikola Sellmair  221 pp.

German born Jennifer Teege was 38 years old when she found a book in the library titled I Have to Love My Father, Don't I?. She was shocked to discover it was about her birth mother, Monika Göth who had put her up for adoption as a small child. Teege is the daughter of Göth and a Nigerian man. Her mother's father was the infamous SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, commandant of the Plaszów concentration camp near Kraków, Poland who would be played by actor Ralph Fiennes in the film "Schindler's List." The horrifying discovery of her ancestry and that the grandmother she adored was complicit by denying the deaths of thousands of Jews at the hands of her husband devasted Teege's entire life. The books tells the history of Amon Göth's brutality and how Teege was able to eventually come to grips with the knowledge that had he known her, her grandfather would have wanted her dead. Chapters alternate between the historical facts and Teege's personal experiences.

Lethal White

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, 650 pages.
Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot are back in the fourth of J. K. Rowling's mysteries. Their personal relationship move in fits and starts in this installation, mostly because the detective agency is so busy after their success in the Shacklewell Ripper case in the previous volume. This book opens with a more detailed look at Robin's wedding, giving a recap of the end of the last novel, and then quickly goes through the next year. The case around which Lethal is focused, the blackmailing of a prominent Tory politician, soon takes center stage. Strike is particularly intrigued by the politician's relation to a mentally ill man who had come to their office raving about a child's murder. Is the man raving, as everyone close to him claims, or did something horrible happen on the minister's estate years ago?
As the blackmail case winds to a close, the large cast of suspects and interested parties become suspects in what appears to be another murder. And near-evidence of the alleged murder from long ago keeps wandering in to orbit of the current cases.
 Ellacot and Strike, compelling and likable characters, find their personal lives unraveling and fraying as the main case and a few others, take their toll. The agency has hired a few other detectives, but they're not always reliable. It's a huge book, but it moves along nicely, and all-too-soon it's over and you're facing a long wait for the fifth volume. A great read.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, 376 pages.
Macy presents a stunning and depressing overview of the current opioid epidemic, traces the twenty-some-year timeline of said epidmic, and explores the marketing campaign behind Purdue Pharma's new OxyContin, a supposedly addiction-free pain-relief compound that fueled its current fire. Macy focuses (many of) her stories in and around Roanoke, Virginia, reporting on the quickly growing problems with OxyContin and prescription opiods, and then with regular old heroin when the supply prescription pills dries up there.
Macy tells the story of Purdue spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on OxyContin-related merchandise, and pushing the "Pain: the fifth vital sign" mind-set among physicians and patients, encouraging the belief that pain-relief, with then new "non-addictive" drugs was the way to go.
There are the stories of many of the individuals caught up in the crisis, drug users and their family members, law enforcement officers, lawyers, doctors and the people at Purdue. An interesting book, shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for nonfiction.
The downloadable audio was narrated by the author.

The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, 399 pages.
The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman, 326 pages.

I listened to the first two books in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy after listening to the new volume, The Book of Dust, at the end of last year. I was anticipating reading the rest of the new series, but I sort of lost my enthusiasm for the whole thing. Not that the first two books didn't hold up. They're fine as stories, but there's a little too much exploitation of children (sure, for very different reasons in this world) for me, currently. I don't remember liking the third volume quite as much, and given the author's recent comments, I think I will give this series a rest.

Why Not Me

Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling, 228 pages.
The TV comedy writer, actor, and humorist is back with her second book about her life and outlook. Something like that. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and enjoyed it. Kaling talks about the two shows she worked on, The Office and The Mindy Project. She recounts how she went from being a writer, to a writer /actor to getting her own show and achieving the coveted status of show-runner. Interesting and fun to listen to.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Uprooted, Naomi Novik, 448 pages

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is November's Orcs and Aliens book club book. It centers around Agnieszka and the Dragon's fight against a deeply corrupted evil forest. It draws a lot of influences from Eastern European folklore, and Agnieszka's magic shares a connection to the stories of Baba Yaga. Novik's storytelling is clear and well written, and her protagonists have wonderful depth and purpose. I'm very excited to see what the rest of the book club thinks of this novel, as I highly enjoyed it.

Reaper at the Gates

Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir, 458 pages.

In the previous volume of this series there was a big shift away from the magic-tinged, but ordinary battle. The battle, fought by people with modest, but helpful powers, shifted from the one being fought on behalf of the downtrodden, the scholars, and others, and against the emperor and against his commandant to one against some more powerful, mythical creatures.
The third (and obviously not the final) volume continues the battle against the Nightbringer and the djinn and the Commandant, who is fighting on their side for her own particular reasons. We're given information to show that the Commandant's motives are maybe not quite purely evil and self-serving, and we're shown that maybe Elias Venturius maybe stuck as the Soul Catcher for a good part of eternity (or maybe not). All-in-all, a fast-paced and engaging middle volume. I'm looking forward to the fourth (and maybe the subsequent) volume(s).

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Cocaine Blues

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (1989) 175 pages

After recently being bowled over by Phryne (rhymes with briny) Fisher, a young woman who solves mysteries while exhibiting  reason, fashion sense, and lust, I needed to read the first book in the series, Cocaine Blues (set in the late 1920s). Within 6 pages, Phryne goes from living in Britain, attending a huge dinner party where a diamond necklace is stolen (and solving the crime in five minutes, tops) to getting her next job, finding out what's up with the adult daughter of a rich, worried couple. Phryne packs up a truckload of clothing and takes up life in the poshest hotel in Melbourne, Australia. Upon entering the country down under, where Phryne had lived in her youth, she hears much talk of lives wasted due to the influence of cocaine. She also learns that there is an abortionist at loose in the city, butchering young women in trouble.

Hold onto your hats; the action never slows down for long! I will definitely be reading more of this series.

My Brother's Husband

My Brother's Husband Volume 2 by Gengoroh Tagame  352 pp.

This is the conclusion to the story of Yaichi, his daughter Kana, and Yaichi's brother-in-law, Mike. While the first volume involved Yaichi's shock and discomfort at his brother Ryoji's life and the intrusion of the burly Canadian, Mike, to their home. In this part Mike learns more about Ryoji's life growing up in Japan while Yaichi examines his own feelings about his late brother's homosexuality. Of course, it is young Kana who is completely accepting of her Uncle Mike and is heartbroken when he must return to Canada. This is a charming and thoughtful graphic novel.

Still Life

Still Life by Louise Penny  312 pp.

This is the first of the Inspector Gamache mysteries. In a small Quebec town, a retired schoolteacher dies in the woods of an arrow wound. Gamache of the Surêté de Québec and his team are called in to investigate. Most belief the death was a hunting accident as it is bow season for deer. As more and more details are uncovered it seems that someone had planned a cunning murder made to look like an accident. Meanwhile Gamache also has to contend with a troublesome new addition to his team of investigators. It is a well written, with interesting characters, and a story that is not blood & guts gory. All in all a nice light read.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Fifty Grand

Fifty Grand: a Novel of Suspense / Adrian McKinty, read by Paula Christensen, 308 p.

Fifty Grand opens with a young, pretty Havana detective pushing a naked American man through a hole in the ice over a Wyoming lake.  Detective Mercado of the Havana Police has tricked her way to Colorado via Mexico in search of the man who killed her father there in a hit and run.  Along the way she meets Francisco, a young Nicaraguan who becomes her friend and protector of sorts.  Posing as a Mexican migrant worker, Mercado, along with Francisco travel to Fairview, an Aspen-like place where Hollywood's super wealthy have their houses cleaned and their drugs ferried by immigrants who live in a state of quasi-slavery, beholden entirely to their handlers and the vicious town sheriff.  One the one hand a suspenseful whodunnit, on the other a sharp critique of American immigrant policy and racism, with a bit of Scientology satire for fun, this was a great listen.  The parts of the novel set in Cuba have a great you-are-there feel, and Christensen's reading was excellent.

A Darkness More Than Night

A Darkness More Than Night / Michael Connelly, 418 p., read by Richard Davidson

Harry Bosch and retired FBI agent Terry McCaleb join forces to find a particularly sadistic killer.  The killer seems to have left a message in the form of an owl statue.  What does it mean?  Do McCaleb's suspicions about Bosch have any basis?

This particular title includes characters who appear elsewhere in Connelly's series, such as Terry's friend Buddy Lockridge, and reporter Jack McEvoy. 

The Shakespeare Requirement

The Shakespeare Requirement: a Novel / Julie Schumacher, 308 p.

From the author of the delightful Dear Committee Members comes another year in the life of beleaguered English professor Jason Fitger.  As department chair, Fitger fears that he will preside over the total annihilation of his department at the hands of Roland Gladwell, the power-hungry econ prof who would like to wipe away Fitger's fiefdom to make more room for the higher 'quality' faculty in the Economics department.  Plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, some of them involving miniature donkeys, and a keen feel for the rhythms of campus life make this another enjoyable read. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Let it bang

Let it bang: A young black man's reluctant odyssey into guns / RJ Young, read by the author, 224 pgs.

RJ Young always felt like he should avoid guns because he knew just having one could get him killed.  But when he marries and joins a family whose patriarch is a "good old boy" with an extensive gun collection, he decides to learn more about guns.  A black man and NRA member, he becomes an expert shot and becomes certified to teach classes.  An interesting look at gun culture and the differences of gun ownership for blacks and whites in America.  Well read by the author.

The unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

For Willa Knox’s family, there has been a perfect storm of misfortunes and losses.  The magazine she wrote for folded at the same time her tenured professor husband, Iano, lost his job – his university has also gone under.  Taking whatever job he can find nearby, they relocate to Vineland, New Jersey, and move into a century’s old brick home inherited from Willa’s late aunt.  Alarmingly, the house too is a “shambles” and literally falling down around them.  Willa and Iano have two grown children.  Bright and striving Zeke lived with his partner, Helene, a similarly inclined British woman.  After their child Aldus is born, Helene, who is more troubled than anyone realizes, commits suicide, leaving Aldus, soon nicknamed Dusty, in the care of his paternal parents while Zeke seeks his fortune in a start-up in New York.  He’s deeply in debt with student loans from his ivied education.  Daughter Antigone, called Tig, has also moved back home after several years in Cuba – a free-spirit with contempt for free-market, consumer-driven American life, she is the diametric opposite of her successful brother.  But that’s not all!  Nick, Iano’s difficult and foul-mouthed (in both English and Greek) father, is also living with them and is not “going gently into that good night” despite being obese, chair-bound, and dangerously diabetic.  Think they have it bad?  Well, there’s another family who inhabited this plot of land 140 years earlier and they had their problems too – including a falling down house.  The two families lives intertwine in alternating chapters, connected as well by the last word or words of one chapter becoming the first in the next.  The older story involves a fascinating real-life character, Mary Trent, who studied ferns and other plants in the nearby Pine Barrens area and corresponded with Charles Darwin and other scientific heavy-hitters of the time.  The fictional Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher in the town’s school, owner of the falling-down house, and her neighbor, becomes involved with her life and that of the utopian town of Vineland, where Darwinism is clashing with religion.  The founder of this utopia has some strikingly undemocratic ideas.  This novel is engaging but not one of Kingsolver’s best.  Unfortunately, too much recent politics works its way into both storylines which I found intrusive and not that well-handled.  Frankly, I am reading novels to escape that…..  462 pp.

Lincoln in the bardo, by George Saunders

Winner of the Man Booker Prize, and on almost all the “Best of…” lists last year, this novel really deserves to be called unique.  I had resisted reading it as I found many of the short stories in his similarly well-reviewed Tenth of December more experimental than pleasurable (although I was blown away by the title story).  Hmmmm, another, longer, experiment?  Even the title was opaque – what is a “bardo?”  Bardo is a Tibetan word for the "in-between" or "transitional" state between lives.  The central character caught in this state is Willie Lincoln, beloved 11-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln, who has succumbed after a lengthy bout of typhoid fever, an endemic infection in the Washington DC area which has been further spread by the presence of troops in the Civil War.  The war is entering its second year and Lincoln is increasingly troubled by the struggle and his responsibility for it.  His son’s death has pushed him further into melancholy and despair.  The Oak Hill cemetery, where Willie is interred in a borrowed tomb, is far from quiet – many troubled spirits remain caught in this intermediary state and converse among the tombstones.  When Lincoln returns alone to visit Willie’s tomb after the burial, and again later that night, a struggle for the fate of Willie’s soul takes place.  Similar in some ways Spoon River Anthology and Our Town, the novel is narrated through multiple viewpoints and print citations – some historical and some invented by the author.  There are some sections that are beautiful poetry, some are funny and others are quite disgusting.  I came away impressed by the author’s audacity and loved the book.  Others have cited the audiobook – I don’t do audiobooks but fell across a wonderful 17 minute bit on Prairie Home Companion, of all places, that is well worth watching/listening to,,  342 pp.