Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book reviews

I started reviewing books on Amazon about 6 years ago hoping that the activity would help me remember what I read.  As a result of my public reviews, I've been approached by authors to review their work in return for a free copy of same.  Anyone who births a book has my complete respect, but I should know better by now than to offer to read and review their work.  Too much my grandma's grandchild, I take to heart her advice: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

The first offer came from a thirty-something Saudi woman who'd written a book on her dating experience.  Or so I thought.  In fact, it was a rather explicit narration of her sexual exploits called "When the Veil Drops: The Erotic Tales of a Muslim Woman."  I could've titled my review "When My Jaw Drops: Not the Demographic for Erotic Tales"  The author and I exchanged several e-mails; she doubtless would've been a great companion for a hilarious girls' lunch out.  My dilemma, however, how to review her book, her labor of love, when I'm more aghast than engaged?

This month I've read two freebies for review.  "Firebug", available on Kindle, by Daniel Berenson, is well-written, a bit of a tear-jerker.  Again, however, this is not my kind of book, and so, was difficult to review.  The other, whose title I will keep to myself, was badly written, full of adverbs, adjectives, and overdrawn scenes.  When the heroine's 'angriness' flooded out of her like a stream, I knew I was in trouble.  

So little time, so much to read.  Time to just say no to cold calls for reviews.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Three Stations Audiobook

by Martin Cruz Smith

I always assumed that Martin Cruz Smith would be too much for me in the way that John le Carre's George Smiley books leave me dazed and confused.  Thus, I have never read "Gorky Park" which has sat on our shelf for ages, and chose with trepidation "Three Stations" on CD for our recent cross country car ride.

Despite the fact that this is number seven in the Arkady Renko series, I was immediately drawn into this story, not one bit befuddled.  A great peek into modern day Russia complete with its corruption, thuggery, runaway kids, prostitution rings, and street gangs.  Arkady Renko is a most appealing police inspector good guy, and despite the fact that Cruz Smith pulls out one of those unexpectedly sudden and implausible plot solutions, "Three Stations" is an engaging listen.

Ron McLarty narrates perfectly, giving voice to characters as disparate as a teenaged mom, a boy chess genius, a Pakistani shop owner, and two enforcers from organized crime.  He joins George Guidall, Dick Hill, and Frank Muller (who narrate Vince Flynn, Lee Child, and Elmore Leonard respectively) as a perfect match of reader to author.

Now on to "Gorky Park."

Addendum:  Actually, "Red Square" not "Gorky Park" in the personal library, and I gave up on page three.  I need oral interpretation on these dense intrigue books.

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

by Virginia Woolf

I was lying on the floor, nominally exercising but really just taking time off from gravity, when I noticed a small piece of fuzz on the carpet.  Pinching it between forefinger and thumb, I realized it was a small moth crushed now in my fingers, as soft as lint.  Oh yuck, I thought, and good riddance too, darned thing and its cousins probably feasting on my winter wool wardrobe.

Virginia Woolf, however, has more moth compassion in her four page essay than I've mustered in a lifetime.  "The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth's part in life...appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic."  She stuck with Moth-Guy to his end, musing over life force and death. And that is why I loll on floors and she authors books.

Best essay of all in this book was "Street Haunting" wherein an early evening walk in winter through London streets "gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow.  We are no longer quite ourselves."  She proceeds on a 14 page meditative journey through the streets and shops of central London.

The bulk of the book's entries are literary criticism for which I have no background to appreciate.  But the first five essays are definite jewels.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Book Thief, The Fairy Godmother, Good Omens, and What Would Jane Austen Do?

submitted by KRO (knowing KRO and reading the reviews on three of these books, I suspect they're as quirky and fun as she is).

I've joined a book club.  And while I love that it is alternate books and happy hour (because I work and it's all crazy) I've been forced to read somethings I might not have done on my own.  I have really been enjoying The Book Thief even though it can be dark at times it's written in such lovely prose.  And She's such a thoughtful girl.

For days when you need mindless and a little hope I like The Fairy Godmother from Mercedes Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdom Series.  A Girl who should have been Cinderella if the circumstances were right gets picked up to be a fairy godmother's apprentice.  She learns all about The Tradition and how to find her place in the world.  I love it when women rescue themselves.
If you have a sense of humor about religion and the apocalypse I recommend Good Omens By Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  An Angel and a Demon become friends during the countdown to the Apocalypse  which may or may not happen because someone lost the anti-christ.  Don't you hate it when that happens?
Editor's note:  This book gets great reviews on Amazon:  "This is one of the, if not THE, funniest book I have ever read," and "Great story with twists and turns and laughing out loud."  Available as lowish cost Kindle book.

What would Jane Austen do? Was fun too, for when you want Jane Austen but something you haven't read.  A Costume Mistress is sent back in time to stop the ruination of two sisters.  Turns out Jane Austen's time isn't as wonderful as it's cracked up to be.

Historical fiction

Submitted by SM

Paging through your blog tonight....gotta say, I loved Caleb's Crossing.  I came to it after finding Geraldine Brooks through her Year of Wonders (about the Black Death, and a village that saved itself by shutting out the outside world for a year), and People of the Book (the 'biography' of the Sarajevo Haggadah).  Both are fascinating snippets of history.

Another author I like is Anita Diamant.  The Last Days of Dogtown, about a down-at-heel settlement outside Gloucester, MA, Puritan era, and The Red Tent, a re-telling of a large slice of the Old Testament from the point of view of the women (the red tent is where women removed themselves from society during their periods).

There is little better than well-researched, well-written historical fiction!


by Lucy Knisley

I've never read a graphic novel, always thought them for sci fi fans, 'mature audiences', or teenagers. But this title was so appealing, and the first few sample pages off Amazon so charming, I went ahead and ordered it from the wonderful Amazon Vine program.

No foodie I, and I hoped based on the preview that Ms. Kinsley could introduce a new dimension, a certain relish to my relationship with food.  And her book delivered, delightful vignettes from her lifetime of daily food fiestas.  The cartooning is whimsical, her sense of humor engaging.  There are a number of recipes scattered through the book along with illustrated how-to details.

If you're already a skilled cook with an experienced palate, this may be a little basic for you.  It would be a very nice gift for someone just beginning to cook.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives

by David Eagleman

Sum is a playful anthology of possibilities, a collection of 'what-if' alternatives to more conventional versions of heaven.  Dr. Eagleman, a renowned neurscientist as well as a best-selling author, offers forty versions of 'ever after', some happily, some downright unsettling. Several versions may resonate with the reader's fantasies, e.g. what-if we're part of some immeasurably large life form, a giantess, we merely atoms and our Earth a fleck of protein in one of her cells.

My favorite?  After death we are consigned for a time to a lobby, like an enormous airport waiting area.  Tables are spread with coffee, tea, and cookies; we are free to help ourselves as we wander about making small talk with fellow departees.  Callers periodically emerge with lists, and when you are called, it means your name has been spoken for the last time.  There is no one left to remember you. You exit through a door to who knows where.  Some of those left waiting--their reputations perhaps so soiled, their deeds so misunderstood as they live on in the heads of those who remember them through twisted history--watch with envy as you go.

This slim volume, each vignette a few pages long, is an intriguing read.  But it's far from Dr. Eagleman's only accomplishment, check out his web page.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

Editor's note:  I haven't read this book but have received a number of e-mails from readers who recommend it.  Language offends? Morally bankrupt?  Hmm...

  • Our current book club book is Gone Girl and I recommend it. Some of the language offends a few women, but it fits the story line, which is edge-of-your-seat good.
  •  I am reading 'Gone Girl' and loving it. 
  • Read Gone Girl for Book Cub-- though hard to put down it was morally bankrupt and disturbing why it was so popular.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Long March

by William Styron

Another dusty paperback from the back of my home shelves.  I don't know where this one came from--my husband claims it's mine and I am certain he bought it used for undergrad English 101.  The loopy scrawls of a long-gone coed annotate the yellowed pages of this little gem.

Marine recruits and veteran officers swelter through training camp "in the blaze of a Carolina summer."  Captain Mannix despises everything about the Marine Corps, but his most passionate fury  is directed towards Colonel Templeton.  The Colonel, a polar opposite of the Captain, has a calm demeanor, a man "to whom the greatest embarrassment would be a show of emotion."  Captain rants and rages against Colonel along the course of a 36-mile forced march over dusty roads and through insect-infested swamps, an uncomfortable test of rank vs. will.

Long-Gone Coed summed it up on the inner back cover: "He realized how feudal it was."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dreams of Joy and Fifty Russian Winters

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin

I came late to the Lisa See party.  Thanks to a retirement gift from P.L., I've enjoyed Dreams of Joy and look forward to backtracking through See's previous books.  Despite its sequel status, I had no trouble following the story of a first generation Chinese-American daughter fleeing to Mao's China in the mid-1950s as much to find herself as her long lost dad.

Would a mother chase down her grown MIA offspring into Communist China?  Hey, you're talking to a mom who was on the phone with the Marine on Duty at the US embassy in Madrid at 4 a.m. their time.  You bet your life she would!  Despite the plausible fierceness of a mother's love, the plot does get a bit outlandish. The scenes of day-to-day life in the Chinese countryside during the Great Leap Forward, however, are vivid and gut-wrenching.

Coincidentally, I recently read a memoir with real-life echoes of this fictional plight.  Margaret Wettlin went to Moscow in 1932 to check out the promise of the Soviet system for herself.  Apparently, quite a number of Americans did the same thing during the honeymoon years following the Russian Revolution. Wettlin, however, met a Russian man, fell in love, and stayed on for fifty years. Like fictional Joy in China, her loved one was in the arts and in an uncertain balance with the Communist party line. Both women brought children into dangerous and precarious worlds. 

The easy in, no way out experiences of these women absurdly remind me of the lyrics from the Eagles "Hotel California":

"Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
"Relax, " said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! "

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Atlantic Monthly

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Megan Garber

I have hoarded magazines for years.  My intentions were good but, alas, my time was short. Medical mags mixed with The New Yorker in drifts on tables and floors.  Finally, after reading an article in the morning paper about a woman who lay unnoticed and dead amidst the rubble in her home, I hauled them all to the trash and vowed to subscribe nevermore.

Fast forward to retirement.  Five periodicals now arrive at regular intervals thanks to some really good deals on auto-renewing subscriptions. I'll probably never be able to stop them and will be found suffocated after all someday below a heap of yellowed JAMA. But I've found a good face wash in Prevention, a new phone app in Money, why flowers produce caffeine in Science, and...the projected death of the pronoun whom in The Atlantic Monthly.

" doomed" says Ms. Garber.  In an increasingly casual world, whom is pretentious, awkward, off-putting.  She quotes whom advice from language expert William Safire: "The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence."  English is being reworked in a convivial, fast-paced, techno-world, and whom just adds one superfluous character to texts and tweets.

My favorite bad-ass action hero Jack Reacher just asked on the latest audio book to which I am listening (which I am listening to?) "Who recruited who?"  Bad-ass action heroes would get their bad asses kicked if they asked "Who recruited whom?"  

Point made.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Two that didn't work out

I was stuck on two four hour flights  this past week with my own bad choices.

The first, a freebie from the wonderful Amazon Vine program, was my mistake.  I'd tried a previous book by David Shields ("The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead") paid full price for it based on a review in the morning paper!--and never could finish it.  I picked out "How Literature Saved My Life" based on the title alone, failing to grasp that this author had failed me once.

I read nearly all of it between Denver and Philadelphia, and I still don't know how literature saved Mr. Shields's life.  I don't even get what he was talking about--the writing was pretentious and inscrutable.

On the way back, I carried a hardcover copy of "Sweet Tooth," Ian McEwan's latest.  Halfway through the book, two-thirds through the flight, I found I'd rather stare into space then continue reading this dull satire about the British Intelligence service.  I never finished this book, and this from a McEwan fan who counts "Saturday" as one of her all-time favorite books.  What a disappointment!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

March and Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks, submitted by BB

I have just finished this book I absolutely could not wait to pick it up again each time I set it down.  This is a novel which takes place during the Civil War.  Brooks was a NYT foreign correspondent in several countries.  Her language and metaphors are definitive and refreshing.  I plan to order another by her called "Caleb's Crossing.

April 2:  I just finished Caleb's Crossing.  It includes the history of Martha's Vineyard and Harvard in the 1600s as she weaves her wonderful imaginative story around facts and real people.

I loved her last paragraph where she ruminated "if I had made a different choice back then, how many other lives would have changed and including mine. Interesting to think about. All for now.

Nemesis: Audiobook

by Philip Roth

This is the first book I've 'read' by Philip Roth.  I'm never sure if the pleasure of listening to a book is any indication of how it would read, but narrator Dennis Boutsikaris does an excellent job of giving voice to the ordinary people herein faced with extraordinary events in "equatorial New Jersey" through the summer of 1944.  Each day as I listened while driving through Denver, I was reluctant to stop the CD, turn off the car, and return to my life of errands.

In the realm of scene setting (as in "it was a dark and stormy night"), the stifling heat of Newark during a horrific summer-time polio epidemic while the city's young men are off fighting and dying in Europe and Asia redefines the art.  The outside air is stifling and heavy with humidity, pedestrians soaked with sweat as soon as they leave their houses.  Protagonist Bucky Cantor is sweating alright, trying to navigate the moral high ground as playground director, teacher, grandson, and fiance. Classified 4-F due to poor eyesight, he tries to justify his safe life at home while his friends are overseas in the army where he'd like to be.

This upright, literal-minded, good-hearted man vacillates from moment to moment, changes his mind at night and again in the morning, struggles mightily to do the right thing. How does one live and love on despite personal and global tragedy?  A sad and thought-provoking book. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

I'm working my way through a slew of unread books on my shelf.  This collection by Ray Bradbury has the Winesburg, Ohio and Olive Kitteridge sort of format wherein a group of short stories, each of which is able to stand alone and complete in its own narrative, are more or less woven together by common characters or geography.

While a Bradbury fan, I found this book sad and cynical, without engaging characters or intriguing story lines.  Humans fly to Mars bringing all their strengths and failings--much more of the latter than the former--and play out the worst nightmares of the 1950's.  I don't suppose much has changed since then with respect to human nature, but Bradbury's skill as a story teller certainly improved in the years and books to follow.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jack Reacher Audiobooks

by Lee Child

I should have lived in the era when reading books aloud was an after-dinner pasttime; I love listening to literature. Certain books doubtless are more engaging out loud than they would be to read, particularly if the narrator is skillful.

I'm not sure what I'd think of the Jack Reacher books in print, but thanks to clever (if somewhat outlandish) plotting and a great reader, every one I've tried save the latest ("A Wanted Man") is most enjoyable.  Reacher, a 6'5", 250 pound ex-military policeman, wanders the country with only a toothbrush in his pocket and the clothes on his back, preferring to buy a new outfit when the current one gets dirty rather than bother with luggage.

A word, however, on "A Wanted Man."  This one starts out promising with the one little glitch that Reacher has a broken nose, and Dick Hill, on average the perfect auditory Reacher, delivers the injured hero in a stuffy, nasal voice...14 clogged hours of it that drove this listener to distraction. When the story goes rogue with ridiculous twists and incomprehensible spy vs spy nonsense, the experience is intolerable by disc 9 of 12. 

I fear Lee Child is following action author colleagues Grisham, Patterson, Connelly, Ludlum, and Clancy, churning out books after creativity has run dry.  If this wasn't written in collusion with a ghost-writer, perhaps he should hire one. It couldn't get any worse.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Phi: A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul

by Giulio Tonio, MD
I first read about Giulio Tonio in an article about anesthesia, specifically about the horror of waking up from anesthesia while the operation is still in progress. He is working on a method whereby anesthesiologists can accurately assess the level of awareness in their patients. Dr. Tonio, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist, is the Distinguished Chair in Consciousness Studies at the University of Wisconsin. He has a keen interest in mind and how it is generated from the matter of brain.
His book “Phi: A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul”, is a beautifully annotated exploration of that which does and does not constitute consciousness. Definitely not a bedtime read; you’ll need all your wits about you to follow along with a fictional Galileo as he wanders through time and space in search of the soul while in the company of various illustrious guides including Francis Crick, Marcel Proust, and the explorer Ernest Shackleton. 

I borrowed it from the library; I recommend you do the same.  If life was long enough to revisit books again and again, I’d buy a copy and revisit it once a year.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet

by Robb Wolf, submitted by NW

This book has a lot of interesting physiological information in the book. For me, as a geologist, a particularly interesting thing about the book is that it takes a paleohistorical approach and speculates on the sort of diet that humans ate through 99% of their evolutionary history, i.e., before the start of agriculture ~ 9000 years ago. He makes grains and legumes bad guys, but I haven't read far enough yet to see if Wolf was aware that pre-agricultural societies ground and ate many type of seeds mesquite beans. Metates* attest to that. The ancients just didn't overindulge in those commodities on a regular basis.

Editor's note:  I had to look up Metates which, per Wikipedia, is a mortar, a ground stone tool used for processing grain and seeds. Per NW: "I found a beautiful metate and a mano (the stone held in your hand) in a mesquite grove in West Texas about 30 years ago when I was doing uranium exploration. I had found others, but in plowed fields they were all broken. Apparently this was one grove of mesquite that was there since pre-agricultural times in Texas. It had been used for so long, that a hole had been worn through the bottom - and consequently was abandoned there."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan

I thoroughly enjoyed The Lifeboat, a first novel by Charlotte Rogan. Astute and “self-loyal” Grace Winter, age 22, a newlywed in the summer of 1914, narrates this novel.
Following an explosion on a luxury Atlantic Ocean liner, Grace survives three weeks on an overcrowded lifeboat without her husband Henry. Grace subsequently finds herself on trial for murder. Shipwreck, survival, power struggles and moral dilemmas provide dramatic metaphors for many problems faced by ordinary people. One reviewer dubbed this book “Lord of the Flies with Edwardian ladies”.
Rogan is interested in philosophy (Hobbs) and the idea that people create society out of a given state of nature, making up rules and giving up certain freedoms for security. This book is a page-turner and a fascinating psychological study of several complex characters, especially Grace Winters.
Submitted by HKw

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Godfather's Daughter

by Rita Gigante

What an intriguing title about a life as far from mine as can be imagined. And yet...the result is just okay, blandly fascinating, ranging from moving to outlandish to downright boring, the equivalent of a well-written, self-published autobiography that a friend might give to you.

Not to give it all away, but I will.  The Mafioso's girl becomes a New-Age healer who pairs with her deceased Don of a dad to deliver care. 

The Ringtone and the Drum

by Mark Watson

Traveler's advisories or not, there is no way I will ever travel through West Africa. My idea of a breathtaking adventure is to negotiate an international airport without a phone or facility with the local language. Lucky for me then that Mark Weston and his tireless wife Ebrun have undertaken the journey.

Mr. Weston's book is West Africa 101. He sheds light on that which seems dark and overwhelming in its complexity and foreignness. He's eyes on the ground in places I can't imagine much less hope to understand. With computer at hand as I read, I got visuals on the dusty villages and the people therein as the author chronicles conversations over endless coffee at yet another dusty streetstand.

Best of all, Weston segues easily from the personal to the historical and the geopolitical, a skill not necessarily demonstrated in such travelogues as his. I hope he continues his writing career--I'd go virtually anywhere with him.