Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Battle of Arnhem: the Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II

The Battle of Arnhem: the Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II by Antony Beevor, 459 pages.
Beevor has this great gift for including an amazing amount of detail from a wide variety of accounts from contemporary witnesses and weaving those together with more recent histories and biographies. Beevor looks at the decisions that led up to the disastrous attack in September of  1944, and the events as they unfolded. His sources are the commanders and soldiers involved, from the Sherwood Rangers, the Guards Armored, and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade (Polish), to the 506 Parachute Infantry, the 327 Glider Infantry, on the allied side, attacking to the 107th Panzer Brigade, the 10th SS Frundsberg Panzer Division, and the 1st Fallchirmjager Regiment on the German side, playing defense. Over the course of one week in September, a number of Dutch towns were briefly liberated, and miles of roadway cleared as airborne and glider troops went ahead to seize the bridges and armored troops followed to hold the path into Germany. Beevor recounts the brave fighting by the soldiers, the horrible conditions for the civilians, the squabbling and blaming by the officers and the unwinding and disintegration of the plan for the allies.

Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld

Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld by Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, 454 pages.

Serge Klarsfeld was a French Jew whose last memory of his father was of when he was eight, when the Germans came and his father hid Serge, his mother, and sister in a hidden cupboard under the sink. Beate was a German girl whose father fought on the eastern front. He was saved from death in battle by a case of double pneumonia in 1945. Beatte and Serge met in Paris in 1960. They have been together ever since, married with children and now grandchildren. They have spent their lives chasing down Nazis who had escaped justice after the war.  Some of the men they hunted worked in the post-war German government, like Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger, or in the European parliament like Ernst Achenbach. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, was hiding in Bolivia.
Beate and Serge fought tirelessly to bring former Nazis to justice, using legal and illegal methods, working with allies from the revered Simon Wiesenthal to the more infamous Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader.
This was my introduction to the famous pair. I had somehow missed the 1986 made-for-TV movie, starring Farah Fawcett, made about the couple.

A load of hooey

A load of hooey / Bob Odenkirk, read by the author and others, 139 pages.

A collection of pretty goofy essays, many are delightful but maybe a little heavy on the bathroom humor.  The audiobook is read by a the author and a cast of his friends which makes it pretty great.  I particularly liked the speech to college graduates that starts, 'Don't take advice from strangers.'  There were lots of other gems, a fun listen.

On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein

On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius by Charlie Harmon  259 pp.

With all the alcohol and drug use in this book it could almost be titled "Fear and Loathing on the Classical Music Circuit". Charlie Harmon took over as Maestro Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant, charged with keeping his day to day life running while touring around the world and making sure the Maestro finished writing his opera "A Quiet Place". Harmon had been at loose ends about what to do with his musical career when this job fell in his lap. However, most of his duties at the start were more logistical than musical; booking flights and hotels, packing mountains of luggage, getting Bernstein to his appointments, and providing for his needs. Soon he was also a music copyist and travelling music librarian for the various tours. The biggest challenge was the hard drinking, chain smoking, Dexedrine dependent, sexually promiscuous Bernstein himself. Sleep "schedules" were chaotic and the work was often thankless. By the time he resigned as assistant Harmon was overworked, depressed, suicidal, and constantly at odds with Bernstein's producer and business manager. On his death bed Bernstein requested that Harmon "take care of his music" which he went on spend endless hours cataloging. This is an unwhitewashed look at a complex genius.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Library Book

The Library Book / Susan Orlean, 317 p.

I can't imagine I have anything new to add to the wholly justified love that has already been heaped on this book.  How fantastic to read a work by someone who 'gets' libraries and librarians in all of our quirky wonderfulness.  I'd love to own a copy so that I could re-read a chapter or two at the end of a long day. 

In An Absent Dream

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, 204 pages

Katherine Lundy is a bookish, rule-abiding 8-year-old when a door suddenly appears before her during her walk home. As a curious child, she opens it and walks through to find herself in The Goblin Market, a fantastical land filled with all manner of creatures and an overriding law of fairness. Lundy, as she dubs herself in this strange land, soon learns that she can come and go from the Market as she pleases, but must make the decision whether to stay permanently there or in the mundane world before her 18th birthday.

The fourth entry in McGuire's Wayward Children, In An Absent Dream lives up to the high standard McGuire set with the previous entries. It packs quite the punch emotionally, and inspires quite a bit of thinking about what is actually a fair price for everything from pie to friendship to happiness. We'll be discussing the first book in this series (Every Heart a Doorway) at the February Orcs & Aliens book group, and I can't wait to talk about it with everyone.

Becoming

Becoming / Michelle Obama, 433 pgs.

A remarkable memoir by our former first lady.  Michelle Obama grew up in an 900 sq. foot apartment with her family on Chicago's south side.  She went on to an Ivy League education and was working at a prestigious law firm when her law student mentee, a guy with a weird name, showed up late with a grin on his face.  It took awhile, but they eventually dated and married and went on to become the first African American president and first lady.  As I read this book, all I could think of was how I had always assumed that Michelle and I would be friends if our paths ever crossed.  I think this even more now.  Obama is the first lady we never deserved.  This book is a great read and it makes me happy to remember the class and elegance that used to live in the White House.

Deadly Class: 1987, Reagan Youth

Deadly Class [vol. 1]: 1987, Reagan Youth by Rick Remender, art by Wes Craig, 160 pages

Marcus is living on the streets in San Francisco, dodging the police (who are after him for burning down a home for orphaned boys), when he's picked up by an odd assortment of teens. Turns out they've come to recruit him for Kings Dominion, a high school that trains teens to become assassins. As in most schools with strict rules, cliques reign supreme and the rules at Kings Dominion are also broken regularly — of course, the cliques at Kings are more akin to crime families, and the rules include the prohibition of sex, drugs, and killing one another. With this 1980s-set series, Remender and Craig re-create the insanity of that decade's drug scene, as well as the universal awkwardness of teens, and put an edgy twist on it. I enjoyed this first volume, and I'll definitely be reading more.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

An Echo of Murder

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry (2017) 286 pages

Here's yet another new-to-me mystery series, set in 1870. William Monk, a Thames River policeman, has been given a gruesome murder to investigate: a Hungarian immigrant, Fodor, has been skewered in his office above a warehouse, the bayonet left in his body. His fingers had been broken after he was dead. Seventeen candles, 15 white, 2 purple are around the room, along with blood galore. For Monk's investigation, he needs a translator in order to get information from other Hungarian immigrants, so he uses Dobokai, a Hungarian pharmacist who had discovered the body when he was making a delivery.

Meanwhile, we learn about Scuff, a young man whom Monk and his wife Hester had taken in when he was a child. Scuff is studying medicine by assisting Crow, a local doctor. It's awful, yet fascinating, learning how they deal with a patient with gangrene who must have his arm amputated. When Crow sends Scuff to find someone who can speak to this Hungarian patient, they find Dr. Fitzherbert, who had been a close friend of Hester (who was a nurse) on the battlefields of the Crimean War 14 years ago. Fitz has his own demons from his experiences in war. This novel is layered deeply.

When more murders occur, similar to the murder of Fodor, everyone gets very upset. Will Monk figure out what's going on before the Hungarian population riots?




All Systems Red

All Systems Red, Martha Wells, 152 pages

Martha Wells All Systems Red follows Murderbot as it works to save its human charges from a group of others that seem bent upon the destruction of its clients, all while hiding that its governing module is hacked, making it a rogue agent itself. All Systems Red is a very quick read, perfect for an afternoon with a cup of tea. Of interest to me was the way in which Murderbot interacts with the world, and its reactions, as they seem similar to the memoirs and experiences of many high functioning autistic individuals. I found that highly relatable, as I am on the spectrum and deal with some similar social anxieties. All in all, I really enjoyed the novel, my only wish was that it did not end so abruptly. The story arc is nicely progressing, the plot comes to a wonderful climax, it is just that it wraps up and ends so very quickly that it feels rushed.

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition Vol. I, II, III

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe (Book I, II, III), Yukito Kishiro, 430 pages/416 pages/436 pages

Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita series was a hallmark of the early 1990's cyberpunk canon. I first read the trade paperbacks while in high school, and with the upcoming release of a movie based upon the work, it was time for a re-read. Kishiro's fast paced story keeps a reader intrigued page after page, and the striking visual style is clean and crisply presented. The story follows Alita, a young female cyborg with amnesia, as she pieces together her past and her future. The first three books in the deluxe edition series cover Alita's initial time as a bounty hunter, a motorball player, and finally as a tuned agent for Tiphares, a floating city above the scrapyard in which the story takes place. While Alita accomplishes these external things through the mastery of a mysterious martial art style that she innately knows, she struggles with the concept of identity and finding her place in a world she is just learning about.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, 527 pages

Economics professor Rachel Chu is madly in love with her boyfriend Nick Young, and, after two years of dating, is thrilled when he asks her to accompany him to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Knowing next to nothing about his homeland and nervous about meeting his family, Rachel gamely agrees to go, not knowing what in the world she's getting herself into. Turns out Nick is rich. Like, beyond filthy rich. Rich to the point of nobody knowing who the Young family is because they've been crazy rich for generations. And as Nick is the heir apparent to the vast fortune, Rachel's arrival in Singapore makes everyone assume that she's a gold-digger who has somehow landed the best catch in Asia. And everyone from Nick's mother and her friends to his ex-girlfriend and her friends is determined to break up the happy couple.

This book was adapted into a wildly popular movie last year, and while I haven't seen it yet, if it's anything like the book, I can see why it got such great reviews. This book offers a view into the type of wealth that nobody reading this will ever experience (if I'm wrong, first, wow, and second, can I catch a ride on your private jet sometime?), exploring both the good and bad. It's touching, it's funny, and the characters are fantastic. I can't wait to read the next one!

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-1/4 Years Old

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-1/4 Years Old by Hendrik Groen  384 pp.

This book is written as the actual diary of an old age pensioner living in a Dutch retirement home. While there are many darker parts, most of the story is about the lighthearted antics of Hendrik and his cohorts in the home. There are constant battles with those running the home over "rules". The arrival of a new woman resident perks up Hendrik and their friendship grows during the year of the diary. A small group of residents create the "Old But Not Dead Club" to go on outings planned by the various members. The story doesn't gloss over the various maladies of the residents and there are frequent mentions of residents passing. Hendrik Groen is the pseudonym for Dutch author Peter de Smet. There is a sequel due out mid-March and I'm looking forward to see how Hendrik is doing.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Why we dream

Why we dream: the transformative power of our nightly journey / Alice Robb, 266 pgs.

What happens when we sleep?  Lots of stuff.  Your brain can be very creative in sleep, you can discover answers to problems, make peace with people, and recover from fear.  Or, for some, never remember a dream.  Robb does an interesting overview of the history of dreaming from ancient times to modern interpretations.  Lucid dreaming can be enhanced by learning to recognize them and setting the stage.  Talking about your dreams can be controversial mostly because they matter more to you than anyone else.  There are groups who get together to discuss and interpret their dreams.  The author did a good job of trying almost everything she writes about so we get a first hand appraisal of many ways of getting the most of your dreams.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend / Elena Ferrante, read by Hillary Huber, 331 pgs.

Lila and Lenu are best friends as young children and this first in the series takes them through adolescence.  Although they are close, they sometimes veer from each other before going back.  They are both brilliant, the smartest in class but only one goes on past grade school.  As their paths diverge, they still see each other. On the one hand, nothing much happens in this book.  On the other, it seems like EVERYTHING happens.  The girls are learning and growing.  They are having experiences for the first time and they share a lot with each other.  The book is leisurely paced but the audio was hard to turn off.  Looking forward to the next in the series.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker (2018) 304 pages


Whether you're planning a meeting of adversaries, a conference, or a social event, Priya Parker's book is jammed-packed with advice on how to make the most of the gathering. Parker's background in public policy, organizational design and conflict resolution makes her the go-to person on what to do and what not to do to bring people together in a true meeting of the minds, and how to get people to leave their superficial, sanitized thoughts behind when they enter the gathering. She shares scads of information on events she had been tasked with organizing and how she was able to give participants a safe way to share their ideas, beginning with planning the initial invitation, through the set-up for the meeting itself, and how to nurture the conversation throughout the event.

I found this book fascinating.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life / Gustave Flaubert, 330 p.

January's read for the Reading the Classics book group.  Emma is the wife of a small-town medical officer in 19th century France.  She and Charles lead a reasonably comfortable but dull existence and Emma, young and pretty, feels the need for a life of thrills.  Liaisons with two men in her orbit initially ignite her passions but ultimately can't be sustained.  A wily shopkeeper senses Emma's restlessness and tempts her to spend vastly beyond her means with disastrous results.  It sounds like a trite story of a foolish woman succumbing to stereotypically feminine weaknesses, but Flaubert is psychologically astute, and, unexpectedly, very funny.  Gorgeous physical detail and a very strong sense of the city of Rouen and environs. 

IQ

IQ: a Novel / Joe Ide, read by Sullivan Jones, 321 p.

IQ takes on his first big client, a rapper who believes he is being hunted by someone from his inner circle.  Meanwhile, Ide gives us IQ's back story, including the death of his beloved brother Marcus and his subsequent criminal escapades with current sidekick Dodson.  IQ is a great character, and his story is extremely well-read by Sullivan Jones.  Excellent listen!

Silent Ones

The Silent Ones: a Father Anselm Thriller / William Brodrick, 308 p.

I'm always on the lookout for a new mystery series, and still trying to decide whether this one is worth a second read.  Father Anselm investigates the accusation of sexual abuse of a boy from a prominent local family against a priest from a different order.  An interesting and exceedingly complex, convoluted story with a satisfying resolution.  I liked the side characters, such as the red-faced and venal Bede, a thorn in Father Anselm's side.  I'd like Father Anselm's character to come more clearly into focus to really 'commit' to this one.  We'll see.

tiny beautiful things

tiny beautiful things:Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar / Cheryl Strayed, 353 p.

A compiliation of letters from Cheryl Strayed's advice column.  I've never read the column itself, or Strayed's extraordinarily famous Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.  But these letters were gut-punchingly powerful, based on Strayed's own hard-won experience of loss, recovery, and setting boundaries for life's poisonous people.  She is generous, honest, and constructive with her readers.  Best read in snippets to save on Kleenex. 

The Angel of Darkness

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr  752 pp.

This is the sequel to Carr's book The Alienist. Dr. Lazlo Kreisler and recurring characters from the first book return to search for the kidnapped daughter of a Spanish diplomat. The story is told 20 years later by Stevie Taggert, the boy Kreisler rescued from a life of crime on the streets of New York City and takes place a year after the doctor and his assistants tracked down a serial killer. This story has the twist of the kidnapper/killer being a chameleon of a woman who worked as a nurse with a record of young patients dying suddenly and keeping company with one of the notorious criminal gangs of New York. As in the first book, there are appearances by real life figures of the time including Diamond Jim Brady and the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. The plot is good, the characters bring the story to life, and it is, for the most part, well written. But the story goes on too long. By three quarters through I was ready for it to end even with the audiobook read by one of my favorite narrators, George Guidall. Was it necessary to include so many occasions of the investigators dining and the bumpy details of every trip by wagon/carriage on country roads? Sometimes less is more.

The Rooster Bar

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham, 352 pages

Mark, Todd, and Zola are third-year law students at Foggy Bottom Law School, a D.C.-based university with a reputation as dubious as its name. Faced with zero job prospects and nearly a quarter of a million dollars each in student loan debt — as well as months of studying for the bar exam that they probably won't pass — the trio decides to leave their diploma mill school and set up shop, hustling DUI, speeding, and simple assault cases down at the courthouse. So what if they don't have law degrees! Nobody ever asks the attorneys representing Joe Public-who-got-pulled-over-going-80-in-a-45 if they have a degree — everyone just assumes they do. Of course, this scheme only lasts for so long once the partners take a case that's way over their heads.

It's been a minute since I've read a John Grisham book (I'm pretty sure the year started with a 1 instead of a 2), and I'd forgotten how readable he makes all the legal stuff. I liked the three characters' motivations for starting their life of crime, though other than Zola (who almost got dragged into it by the others), I wasn't too keen on the characters themselves. A quick, fun read for anyone suffering under the weight of student loans.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Feral Detective

The Feral Detective: a Novel / Jonathan Lethem, 326 p.

Phoebe's dear friend Roslyn's daughter Arabella has gone missing from her college dorm room, and Phoebe sets out to find her.  Clues point to Los Angeles and there Phoebe meets private detective Charles Heist.  From there things turn very strange: Arabella may gotten involved with one of two feuding desert cult groups, the Rabbits and the Bears.  They're violent off-the-gridders, or they might be, but the good news is that Charles knows all about them because he used to be a Rabbit.  Or a Bear.  Or something.  The details didn't make a lot of sense to me, frankly.  The entire story tries to operate as a not-quite allegory of post-election polarized America.  I was entertained but not fully convinced.

Small Fry

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs  383 pp.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs is the daughter of Chrisann Brennan and Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs). Born during their "hippie" days and at first unacknowledged by her father, Lisa grew up in a very California-esque life. While in high school, dissension with her mother led her to move in with her father, always hoping for a life with a loving parent. Jobs was a difficult man to live with and even harder to know. Despite his millions he was tight with his money and Lisa earned her right to live there by babysitting her younger half-siblings. Eventually her hard work in high school (criticized by her father who urged her to smoke pot and have sex) gained her admittance into Harvard which he reluctantly paid for until he stopped during her senior year. Eventually he repaid the family friends who paid for her last year of college. And there was the death bed forgiveness although I am skeptical of Jobs' true feelings about the daughter he didn't want. The book is well written but I don't know if the author's motive in writing it was to look for sympathy or make her father look bad.  Personally, I don't think any of them are people I'd want to know.

Fortitude Smashed

Fortitude Smashed by Taylor Brooke, 331 pages

Imagine having a clock counting down to the exact moment that you'll meet your soul mate. Now imagine that you're a cop checking out a burglary in progress when your clock hits zero. Surprise! Your soul mate is an art thief! This is exactly what happens to Detective Shannon Wurther, who discovers that his fate is tied to that of bartender/art thief Aiden Maar. While the men are undeniably physically drawn to one another, both have their reservations about the other's lifestyle.

I picked this book up after I found it on a recommendation list, and I swear I thought it was going to be more sci-fi than it was. (Other than the countdown clocks embedded in everyone's thumbnails, there was no sci-fi whatsoever.) Instead, I found a steamy romance with complex characters who are trying to understand this brand new relationship that fate has thrown at them. The book left a lot of things unsaid (like what the deal is with those clocks, and why the soul mates are referred to as "Rose Roads"), and the treatment of the two protagonists was more than a bit uneven (SO MUCH to unpack with Aiden, SO MANY QUESTIONS left unanswered about Shannon). There's supposed to be another book in this series (as evidenced by the "Camellia Clock Cycle Book One" on the cover), but the MLC doesn't own it and I'm not sure whether I want to spend the time to track it down. Meh.

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt  253 pp.

A "French Exit" is when guests sneak out of a party without saying goodbye. Frances and her son Malcolm, perform the ultimate French Exit by leaving the states for France when the money runs out and Frances' husband Franklin's scandalous death has made them pariahs. After a sea journey with their smuggled cat, Small Frank (who may or may not be Franklin Price reincarnated), they arrive in Paris to stay in a borrowed apartment. There they accumulate an assortment of eccentric characters and things get stranger until the final exit. Darkly amusing and quirky. Others have thoroughly blogged about this book here, here, and here.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Radiant Shimmering Light

Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky (2018) 358 pages

Lilian Quick is forty, barely making it as an artist in Toronto specializing in painting pets, including their auras. Her life seems mired in interactions through social media, spending time writing link-filled newsletters that go out to her audience, hoping to drum up her animal painting business.

By chance Lilian reestablishes contact with her long-lost cousin, who now uses the first name "Eleven" as she promotes the Ascendency, an (expensive) female empowerment program. Eleven is so thrilled to be with Lilian again that she hires Lilian to join her team, preparing for the next Ascendency program. Eleven has Lilian participate in the Ascendency, in addition to working for her. Lilian is thrilled to have a regular, high-paying job, and watches her debts disappear while she lives in New York, in  a rent-free apartment provided by Eleven.

As Lilian delves deeper into her potential, though, she reevaluates her childhood relationship with Eleven, realizing that Eleven's young life was not ideal by any means. Another thing, as Lilian gets more in touch with herself, she begins to be more inundated by stimuli, finding it hard to focus.  An underlying theme seems to be what is friendship? Rather New-Age-y, but quite thoughtful and a quick read.

Let's go (so we can get back)

Let's go (so we can get back): a memoir of recording and discording with Wilso, etc. / Jeff Tweedy, read by the author, 292 pgs.

Listen to this audio and hear a regular guy from Belleville tell you about his life, his family and the choices he made that led him to be one of the most respected song writers in the world.  Told with honesty and sincerity, Tweedy tells of his addiction problem, his band breakup problems and his desire to skip most casual social situations.  His wife and oldest son weigh in and I'm sure he would have also had his parents on the audio if they were still alive.  I have always admired the music, although it isn't my favorite style, but now I admire the person even more than what he has created. 

So lucky

So lucky/Nicola Griffith, 180 pgs.

A highly competent and independent woman, the head of a social service agency, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  She is pushed out of her job by her board, and is just ending a relationship. She finds herself alone with something she can't manage.  Mentally and physically, she is having a tough time.  She sees things in the shadows, she imagines things that aren't there.  But then a series of crimes makes her believe other disabled people are being targeted.  Is she paranoid? Brilliant?  Doesn't matter, the authorities see her as a cripple and are not open to listening to her.  This book is full of bad experiences suffered by the disabled every day. She wants to help herself but that is not always possible.  An interesting perspective that sheds light on the perspective of the newly disabled.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Satchel paige

Satchel Paige: striking out Jim Crow / James Sturm & Rich Tommaso, 89 pgs.

Possibly the greatest pitcher of all time, Satchel Paige started out in the Negro Leagues in the 1920's and went on to play in the major leagues in the 1940's.  He played years after most would have retired.  The muted tones of the art here somehow add to the story.  Paige is a legend and learning more about his history and the struggles of players during the Jim Crow era was informative.  The introduction was written by local favorite Gerald Early.

Serpentine

Serpentine by Cindy Pon, 274 pages

Skybright is the primary handmaiden to Zhen Ni, though the two teen girls are more like sisters than servant and mistress. Headstrong Zhen Ni is facing a life of arranged marriage to an as-yet-unknown man, who she is certain not to love. Meanwhile, Skybright is facing a much stranger and disconcerting problem: she's recently begun shape-shifting into a half-serpent demon and the boy she's falling in love with has inconveniently joined with a group of monks to violently send demons back to hell. It's an odd story to describe, and while it took a bit to get into, I did enjoy it. I particularly liked Pon's use of Chinese mythology, as well as her treatment of teenage sexuality. There is a sequel to this (2016's Sacrifice), though I'm a bit on the fence as to whether or not I want to read it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer / Oyinkan Braithwaite, 226 p.

Korede is a strait-laced, no-nonsense nurse at St. Peter's hospital in Lagos.  Her younger sister, Ayoola, is gorgeous, flighty, and self-centered.  They have a powerful bond that involves the serial killing of Ayoola's boyfriends and Korede's excellent skills at cleaning up the mess.  Sounds implausible, but Braithwaite's fresh and assured prose brings the reader in so close that it all makes perfect sense.  Why does Ayoola kill?  And why does Korede believe that she has no choice but to help cover up?  That's the question, and I greatly enjoyed getting to the answer.  I will definitely be on the wait list for Braithwaite's next work. 

Cherry

Cherry: a novel by Nico Walker, read by Jeremy Bobb, 317 pgs.

A young couple meets in college and falls in love. Somehow, on the way to what could be the middle class "dream" of stability and responsibility, they veer off into drug addiction and bank robbery.  The intervening time is spent by him in the Army in Iraq acquiring a nice case of PTSD, her continuing her education but seemingly open to drug use.  When they reunite after his return to the U. S., things go downhill quickly as they live only to find their next fix and become more open to financing their habit by any means available.  This is an amazing debut novel by a guy who is serving time after being caught robbing banks to finance his drug habit after serving in the Army in Iraq.  The audio by Jeremy Bobb is fantastic.  His voice seems perfect for this character and was more enjoyable than reading the text.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Gross Anatomy

Gross Anatomy: dispatches from the front (and back) / Mara Altman, 312 pgs.

Altman has had issues with her body and decided to learn more about it.  Topics include body hair, lice, boobs, sweat and the functions of the anus.  Yes, many things you probably wonder about yourself.  Altman's style is irreverent but also serious at times.  She is open to some "new age" ideas about dealing with body issues and is working towards better acceptance of her own body.  I enjoyed her style and learned a few things.  It's fine to say over and over "it's natural" or "it's normal" but accepting that for yourself is a bigger step.

Two Girls Down

Two Girls Down / Luisa Luna, 304 pages.

Single mom Jamie runs into a shopping center to get a birthday gift for a party she is taking her girls to.  Ten year old Kylie and eight year old Bailey are gone when she returns.  Soon bounty hunter Alice Vega is called in from California.  Local police are understaffed and overwhelmed by the case but reject assistance.  Alice, however, is working for the family and has a knack for finding missing kids.  Alice teams up with local PI Max Caplan.  He knows the area and is a former cop.  Max is a divorced dad to sixteen year old Nell, a significant force in her own right.  The action is good, the characters are great and the writing well done.  In the end, the story strips you of any hope for the goodness of (some) people.  It seems fairly realistic as far as the motivations of the perpetrators even if the actions of a couple of the characters seem a little fantastic.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Unlocked

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome by John Scalzi, 143 pages

A companion to his novels Lock In and Head On, Unlocked gives the backstory of Haden's syndrome, the debilitating disease that forms the center of those two novels, through people who researched the disease; the people who live with Haden's; politicians who funded the moonshot effort to cure it; and the journalists who covered it.

Considering this is a fictitious disease, it's a well-structured story, as any documentary or oral history would be, and it answers a lot of questions that the Orcs & Aliens book group brought up during our discussion last September, showing just how much Scalzi has thought out this disease. As fantastic as this novella is, I would definitely recommend reading Lock In first.

The Cassandra

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields, 281 pages

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a seer whose prophecies were never believed. During World War II, Mildred Groves is in that same situation, treated horribly by her mother and sister; pitied as a sleepwalking simpleton by the other women at the Hanford research center (the scientific research base where she takes shorthand for a military physicist); and disregarded by the men of Hanford, who only see her curves. Yet Mildred is tormented by her prophetic dreams, which warn of the looming destruction that will be caused by the dangerous products being created at Hanford.

Based on a real research compound on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, The Cassandra presents a sobering and enlightening look at the inhumanity of war, the suppression of women's voices, and the environmental impacts of ignorance in the face of "progress." This was a fascinating glimpse into history, and at the same time, has powerful resonances in modern day. An excellent book.

*This is an advanced reading copy. The book comes out next month.

My Sister the Serial Killer

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite  226 pp.

This book has been making the rounds of the library and has been blogged here and here. This story of a pair of Nigerian sisters is unusual and intriguing. Just how far should a sister go to protect her irresponsible younger sibling? Is cleaning up and disposing of the body after she kills someone enough? What if it happens more than once? What if the man you want for yourself may be the next victim? And should a book about this be so enjoyable? I will be on the lookout for more from this new, young author.

Up Jumps the Devil

Up Jumps the Devil by Michael Poore  360 pp.

John Scratch aka the Devil has lived for thousands of years and in the U.S. for the past few hundred. He has involved himself in historical events, including assisting George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Later he finds himself managing a rock band while driving around the country in the Kennedy Assassination limo. The love of his life has returned to heaven and he wants her back. He keeps assisting in "improvements" to civilization in hopes of bringing her back. In the mean time he falls for Memory, the amnesiac lead singer of the band. John also keeps getting killed (unsuccessfully) but as he ages it takes longer to come back from his injuries. The flashbacks and characters are interesting and it is an amusing story, for the most part. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Death in Connecticut

Death in Connecticut by David Linzee (1977) 245 pages

I wanted to read an early book by this local author, but I did not find the main character in Death in Connecticut sympathetic. Arthur Jr. had been floating about the country, a hold-out from Vietnam protests/campus office takeovers. When his father did not rush in to save him from his own judgement, and when his girlfriend didn't drop what she was doing to validate him, he found himself in a downward spiral until we meet him on a bus three years later, with no food, no clean clothes, but near his father's law office.

His father gives Arthur Jr. access to his apartment, where Arthur finds his father's guns and decides to kill himself. By chance, out in the country where he was going to kill himself, he sees his ex-girlfriend's car parked and stops what appears to be a theft from the car. From here, the confusion grows as he thinks it's possible that drugs are in the package: His ex works for his father's firm; do they deal in drugs? He finds a new zest for life in trying to take his father down. Meanwhile, some shady characters are paying him ominous visits. The action ramps up from there!

The library book, by Susan Orlean

A love letter to public libraries. The red and gold book cover, resembling one of the fancier types of rebinding popular in the 1960s; the faux book pocket and date due card; and the Dewey Decimal headings at the beginning of each chapter are very clever.  The main topic of the book is the serious fire at the headquarters of the Los Angeles library system on April 28, 1986.  Why, I wondered, was I not familiar with this major library event that raged for seven hours, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000, and did extreme damage to the historic building?  Well, the fire shares this date with the Chernobyl disaster, when the world waited to see just how widespread this nuclear catastrophe would become.  Orlean charts the growth of the city of Los Angeles, the development of its library system, the building of its unique main library, and introduces all of the directors who have guided it with greater or lesser effectiveness.  She explores the biography of Harry Peak, a gay pathological liar, wannabe actor, and troubled soul, who may or may not have set the fire intentionally that day. We learn about the "science" of arson investigation.  She ropes in library history, the changing place of libraries in their communities, and the advance of technology, including a long chapter about OverDrive which seemed rather extraneous,  She's obviously a big fan of public libraries.  Perhaps I just know too much about libraries, but I found the book a bit of a slog.  Our oddball patrons are just as weird, if not weirder, than any that hang out in LA.  Maybe a bit less West-Coast-colorful overall, but just as strange.  However, readers who are patrons of libraries, not librarians, will find much interesting information here.  Makes our profession and those that practice it look very good – but we knew that!  313 pp.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

All Systems Red

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 152 pages

An android (with some organic parts) that calls itself Murderbot has been rented out as the security detail for a small surveying expedition on a far-off planet. Unbeknownst to the humans in the expedition, Murderbot has hacked its own governing module, allowing it to do as it pleases. For the most part, this means doing its job as normal but watching soap operas in the background. But when communications with a second surveying crew go dark, Murderbot's abilities become apparent to the crew.

This is the first in four novellas that make up the Murderbot Diaries, and while I'm not quite as taken with the book as all of the praise and accolades suggest I should be, I am intrigued by the main character's personality. There are elements of the autism spectrum that pop up in it, and I very much look forward to discussing this on Monday with the Orcs & Aliens book group.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

At the End of the Century

At the End of the Century: the Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 439 p.

Jhabvala is one of my all-time favorite writers.  As a young person, she was a refugee from Eastern Europe to England, where she later met and married her husband, an Indian architect.  She spent most of her life in Delhi, but in later years also lived in New York, and most of  her fiction is set in one of these two locales.  After her death in 2013 her children collected this volume of some of her most important stories, and they reflect her frequent themes of gurus and charismatics who hold others in thrall, to everyone's detriment.  All are told with the beautifully precise observation of someone who spent her life as an outsider.  The collection contained many stories I had read previously, but there were a few that were originally published in The New Yorker that I had missed.  As always, these are a pleasure.

The parking lot attendant

The parking lot attendant / Nafkote Tamirat, read by Bhani Turpin, 225 pgs.

On the mysterious island of B____, our protagonist tells the story of how she and her introvert father ended up there.  The story starts in Boston where the Ethiopian community is kind of closed off.  Our unnamed girl falls under the spell of Ayale, an enigmatic parking lot attendant that shows her a lot of attention but also uses her.  He takes advantage of her youth, inexperience and loneliness.  She isn't really sure of the bigger plot but she knows it is nefarious.  As she learns more, she realizes how much danger she is in.  What an interesting story told so well.  As always Bhani Turpin's narrations ADDS to the whole.

Bring it!

Bring it!: tried and true recipes for potlucks and casual entertaining / Ali Rosen, 239 pgs.

A great collection of things you can make ahead and take with you.  I'm intrigued with some of the interesting combinations of ingredients along with some regular stand-byes that have been created with portability in mind.  I think there are a lot of good ideas and I've copied several recipes to try soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Half-Drowned King

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker, 431 pages

In the 9th Century C.E., Norway had not yet been united under a single ruler and instead was a land of many, many kings with many alliances and blood feuds between them. Hartsuyker's novel takes us into this almost magical land of fjords and Vikings, gods and warriors, telling of the days leading up to the reign of King Harald, the young gods-blessed man who would eventually unify the country. This novel focuses on Ragnvald, a young man who survives an assassination attempt by his stepfather; Solvi, the sea raider whose father contracted him to commit the murder; and Ragnvald's sister, Svanhild, whose wanderlust and beauty immediately captivate Solvi, much to Ragnvald's chagrin.

As the storyline weaves among these three main characters, it also spends plenty of time in battle, in feasts, and in the mundane (and somewhat scary) spheres inhabited by women. I found this a fascinating tale, richly told. It makes me want to go to Norway and see this wild land myself, though while I plan this dream journey, I'll have to satisfy myself with reading Hartsuyker's sequel, The Sea Queen, which came out last year.

The Bat

The Bat by Jo Nesbø  369 pp.

This is Nesbø's first novel featuring the chain-smoking, alcoholic, Norwegian detective Harry Hole.  Hole is sent to Australia to assist in the investigation of the murder of a young Norwegian woman. Soon the investigating officers realize her death is just one of a series of deaths involving young blonde women. While the investigation progresses, Hole finds himself in a romance with an ex-pat Swede. When things go wrong both romantically and the investigation goes deadly wrong, Hole falls off the wagon and must drag himself back into sobriety to figure out a way to catch the killer. This book was originally published in 1997 although not in English until 2012. I kept thinking how different the story would have been had cellphones and surveillance cameras been in common use. The audiobook was expertly narrated by John Lee who does a great job of differentiating the different accents although I'm sure native Aussies would criticize his attempt at their patois.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Fear

Fear: Trump in the White House / Bob Woodward, 428 pgs.

Woodward is always amazing and doesn't speculate but most of what is here is what you already know if you are paying attention.  If you don't have even a "West Wing" level understanding of how government works (and I'm talking about having watched the television show), and you have no interest in learning, this is how we end up.  Whatever your feelings are about the ideas coming from this administration and the policies they would like to enact, the reality is, they have no idea how to do it.  If you don't understand the basics of international trade and facts don't interest you, you might make up something that you think is good for Americans.  If you think immigrants are in top three of problems we have, you might want to stop people from coming here. But there are laws in place, systems in place, treaties and agreements, legal ramifications and you would have to understand those to effectively put a stop to immigration.  It was interesting reading about staffers who spend their time trying to focus the attention of our chief executive and play interference on short term topics that get blurted out or tweeted.  It would be nice if this ended on a hopeful note, instead it ends looking at reality. 

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret / Craig Brown, 423 p.

I am not a great reader of biography/memoir, but this was well-reviewed enough that I was intrigued.  Margaret was (Queen) Elizabeth's younger sister.  At her birth she was high in the line of succession to the throne.  But when Elizabeth ascended and proceeded to have children and grandchildren of her own, Margaret's position continued to drop, leaving Margaret to feel (presumably)increasingly irrelevant.  As a minor royal, she was left to preside over the dedications of schools, nursing homes, and traffic circles, and to find meaning in whiskey, cigarettes, men, and, above all, insisting on the privileges of rank.

On the whole, then, I found the subject odious but the writing superb.  Ninety-nine brief chapters, most of them anecdotes told by the many people great and small whose paths crossed Margaret's, and only roughly in chronological order, build a kaleidoscopic picture of both a woman and an era of British history.  As a non-tabloid reading American, there were cultural references I missed - Margaret's great love, Group Captain Peter Townsend, is definitely not associated with The Who, for example.  Good fun and fast.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Front desk

Front desk / Kelly Yang, 297 pgs.

Mia and her parents have been in the US for a couple of years but they are still trying to find their way.  They end up running a motel close to Disneyland but are working for a horrible boss that constantly rips them off.  Mia is in 5th grade and the hotel is quite a source of education for her.  She works the desk when not in school where she and her bestie Lupe bond over their dislike of Jason.  Mia's mom is pushing her into math but Mia has a way with words and is working on her English.  She is confident and can figure things out.  She is entering an essay contest to WIN a motel so her family can move up a rung on the ladder.  Mia has some 5th grader problems but mostly her issues are bigger.  Her family is poor, her parents work hard but make little.  Her friends at the motel suffer from discrimination.  She starts helping other people when she can.  She writes letters on their behalf.  She has a lot of ideas.  What a fantastic book that covers so many important modern issues.  Highly recommended.

New Minimalism

New Minimalism: decluttering and design for sustainable, intentional living / Cary Telander Fortin & Kyle Louise Quilici, 201 pgs.

Turns out new minimalism is a lot like the old minimalism.  GET RID OF THE JUNK.  Actually the authors give us much more than that.  You can uncover your emotional style of relating to your stuff.  This actually is very interesting and speaks to WHY it is difficult for you to get rid of certain things.  I'm sure many will relate to one or more of these archetypes.  I've never met a drawer I can't shove one more thing into so I appreciate the idea of determining when something is full. Like so many things, we would be better off quitting and being ahead.  Great for all you New Year resolution readers.