Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fiction roundup July 2018

This is a really fun fantasy about a man who ages much more slowly than other humans. He's in his fifth century when he breaks the rules and falls in love with a normal human. Dangerous events follow...

I really enjoyed this novel about a woman whose marriage is threatened when they sponsor a relative from China to care for their children and home. This was our book club pick a few months ago, and although we all became a little impatient with the main character's actions, I think we all generally liked the book. Gish Jen spoke at the New York State Writer's Institute lecture series in January.

I enjoyed this detective story about a missing woman who finally shows up after many years, but who was murdered. The detective investigating the crime realizes that there's a link to her own family, but keeps it secret as she conducts the investigation. Full of twists and turns, this is a page turner and good summer read.

I thought I would like this book much more than I did. It follows the lives of a group of young people who met at a summer camp and maintained a friendship for the next several decades. I found Ms. Wolitzer's style to be too much telling and not enough showing. The story goes back and forth among the group of friends, relating their experiences and thoughts in such a matter of fact way that it was hard to care about any of them. On top of that, none of the characters are even remotely likable.

This was a fun and slightly silly novel about overly wealthy young people and how they struggle to be themselves and fit in with their families in Singapore. This was a book club read this past spring, and I think we all had some fun with it. There's also a UAlbany connection: one of the actresses in the movie (Awkwafina) is a UAlbany graduate.

This is a cute graphic novel about a cat named Steve who keeps a pet human. The graphic novel is modeled after the Garfield the Cat comic strip. Manfried gets outside and has lots of adventures while Steve desperately looks for him.

Common Ground, by Justin Trudeau

This memoir by Justin Trudeau, the current Prime Minister of Canada, is a fast and fun read. Published as he was poised to lead the Liberal Party and the country, it tells about his childhood, his early career as a teacher, and his pivot into politics. This book gave me a nice overview of the current political climate in Canada, as well as some insight into his father's career and their family life. It was also fun to read after having spent some time in Montreal and Quebec City on vacation last year. It's filled with anecdotes and plenty of photographs, and is a great antidote to the current political situation in the U.S. What a contrast!

Justin Trudeau. Common Ground. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. 343 pages. ISBN 9781443433389.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A Concise History of Canada, by Margaret Conrad

I really enjoyed this overview of Canadian history. It's part of the Cambridge Concise History series, and in 10 chapters and only 330 pages, it's not a deep dive into Canadian history; however, I found it to be an excellent introduction. It begins with the movements of people to North America 15,000 years ago, and brings us to 2011. Of course that leaves out current developments such as the election of Justin Trudeau and the later election of Trump in the U.S.; for more current affairs you’ll have to turn to other books.

The book has significant notes and further reading sections, as well as an index and numerous illustrations including photographs, paintings, maps, and more. It's well-written and definitely worth reading especially by those who (like me) don't know that much about our northern neighbors.

Margaret Conrad. A Concise History of Canada. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 330 pages. ISBN 9780521744430.

Forest bathing, by Qing Li

Forest Bathing caught my eye when I was browsing at Barnes and Noble last month. Written by Dr. Qing Li, Associate Professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, this book explains why it is so beneficial for people to spend time in the woods among trees. He recommends a regular practice of walking, eating, or doing yoga in the forest, or performing other activities such as T'ai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, Nordic walking, and more. In Japan there are many forest bases that are designated for use in therapy. Dr. Li's research is reminiscent of Western research that demonstrates that people's mood and fitness improve with increased time spent outdoors. He recommends trying to bring the forest inside with plants, aromatherapy, forest sound recordings, and the use of essential oils. But best of all, try to get outside, preferably in the woods! This book is completely convincing as well as inspiring.

Qing Li. Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. New York: Viking, 2018. 309 pages. ISBN 9780525559856.

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

My book club selected Born to Run as one of our winter picks. I've always been a casual fan of Bruce Springsteen's music, being familiar with his hits at least; however, I didn't know much about his life and career. This memoir has helped me to understand much more about him, and was surprising (to me at least) in many ways.

First of all, I was impressed with his writing style which was very literary and poetic. I was surprised by that, although I probably shouldn't have been, given that he's been writing song lyrics for five decades. I was also a bit surprised by the poverty he experienced as a child and young man. I had no idea that his family had struggled so much, partly due to his father's depression and other mental illness issues. Similarly, I wasn't aware that Springsteen himself suffered from depression; however, his memoir makes it very clear that this is something that he is constantly battling.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book (and which was similar to my experiences reading recent books about David Bowie and Pink Floyd) was the way this book turned into almost a pop-culture history lesson. I had to keep my iPad handy so that I could google people, bands, albums, and events, and look up videos of performances on YouTube. This caused me to take much longer with the book than if I had just read it straight through, but it was entirely enjoyable and fascinating.

Bruce Springsteen. Born to Run. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 510 pages. ISBN 9781501141522.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I loved this memoir by comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. With a Black mother and a white father, and born in the last decade of apartheid, he would have been taken from his mother if he had been found out by the authorities, and she would likely have gone to jail.

In this book, Trevor tells us about his childhood and the many different societies that made up South Africa under apartheid. When his mother took him for a walk in the park, she had to pretend that she was the maid, because he was obviously of mixed race. His father tried to go to the park at the same time so that he could at least see him from a distance, but Trevor would run towards him, calling "Daddy," endangering all of them. Eventually his father moved to another city and they lost touch, only resuming their relationship when Trevor was an adult.

Trevor writes about his experiences at school and home, bringing us to the point where he decided to immigrate to the United States. He faces many challenges, from an abusive stepfather to social pressures at school, where he has to decide whether he's going to hang with the white kids or the black kids. After he graduates from high school he makes a living selling pirated CDs and working as a DJ at parties. Only after a traumatic attack on his mother by his stepfather does he realize that he has to leave South Africa to be safe.

This is an excellent memoir. It's well-written, and reads like a novel. It has the right combination of personal story and historical context, so important to understand the culture and society of South Africa under apartheid and in the years just after it was abolished.

Trevor Noah. Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016. 288 pages. ISBN 9780399588174.

Devil's Bargain, by Joshua Green

I couldn't resist reading another book that explores how Trump succeeded in the 2016 election. This book focuses on Steve Bannon, his career before politics, and his personal philosophy about government and much else. Written by Joshua Green, a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, this is an excellent exposé of how Bannon and others influenced Trump, his campaign, and the early days of the administration.

It's horrifying to think that such a large percentage of the U.S. population could be so easily manipulated by these creeps. But the toxic combination of white supremacists, racists, misogynists, and pseudo-Christians just ate up what was served by Trump, Bannon, and others. The thought that the 35-40 % of Americans who support Trump are holding the rest of us hostage to this craziness is just maddening. Republicans who are doing nothing to rein him in will not be looked kindly on by history. I'm looking forward to the day when the truth comes out and they are shown for the racist kleptocrats that they are. 

Devil's Bargain is well-written and reads like a novel; however, it's also well-researched. Anyone who wants a fuller picture of how we got where we are should read this book.

Joshua Green. Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. 272 pages. ISBN 9780735225022.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Avid Reader, by Robert Gottlieb

I really enjoyed this memoir from Robert Gottlieb, a man who has been involved in the publishing industry for decades. In this book he takes the reader through his childhood reading habits and then his career at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker. Throughout he tells stories and relates anecdotes about the many famous authors with whom he worked over the decades. He also delves into his involvement with ballet, another one of his passions. It's a fascinating read for anyone who's interested in the publishing industry and 20th century fiction.

Robert Gottlieb. Avid Reader: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 337 pages. ISBN 9780374279929.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is an excellent collection of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this book, he brings together one essay published in each of the eight years of the Obama administration. He prefaced each of those essays with another in which he provides the context and inspiration for the original essay. All of the original essays are incredibly powerful, and Mr. Coates' thoughts looking back on those years are particularly insightful given our current horror story of a government.

The original eight essays are:
  • "This is how we lost to the white man"
  • American girl
  • Why do so few blacks study the Civil War?
  • The legacy of Malcolm X
  • Fear of a Black president
  • The case for reparations
  • The Black family in the age of mass incarceration
  • My president was Black
This book is thoughtful and stimulating. I would recommend it to everyone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, 2017. 367 pages. ISBN 9780399590566.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

David Bowie: A Life, by Dylan Jones

This is a really interesting collection of anecdotes about David Bowie, told to Dylan Jones through interviews that span decades. Arranged chronologically, they tell the story of David Bowie's life through the eyes, memories, and impressions of 182 people that he was close to throughout his career. These are interspersed with occasional stories from Dylan Jones himself about his own interactions with David Bowie.

What I liked about the book: This was a trip through pop culture history that was incredibly stimulating and fun. The book took me a long time to read, at least partly because I had to keep looking things up on Wikipedia, or watching related videos on YouTube. I had never heard of some of Bowie's early work (before "Space Oddity"), and I didn't realize how many albums he had created throughout his life. Many of the people interviewed are pop culture icons, and it was fascinating to read about their relationships with Bowie.

What I liked less: I found it difficult to maintain momentum reading this book. In addition to having to stop frequently to look things up on Wikipedia and YouTube, I found that it's not the kind of book that is easy to read straight through. Each of the people interviewed has a different voice, and it was jarring to read one after another for an extended period of time. Also, while the stories and anecdotes overlapped a bit, the story and focus of the narrative jumped around a lot as one person's section led to the next. Sometimes different people had completely opposite impressions of Bowie, which is interesting in itself, but also a little jarring because there was no effort on the author's part to set the record straight. Another frustration for me was that contributors were identified with their names and relationship to Bowie the first time they were included, but from then on they were only identified by name. That's not a problem with people like Peter Frampton or Deborah Harry, but it was hard to remember who most of these people were (neighbor, childhood friend, manager, etc.) It would have been good to include their relationship every time, or to include an alphabetical index of these people at the end for easy reference. Also, an index of each contributor and the pages on which they appear would have been a great help, so that the reader could easily put together all of the contributions from specific people if interested.

Overall, this was a fun and interesting book; anyone with a strong interest in David Bowie would enjoy it.

Dylan Jones. David Bowie: A Life. New York: Crown, 2017. 521 pages. ISBN 9780451497833.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff

As with the last book that I reviewed, this book has been written about a lot, so I'm not going to go into too much detail. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about White House activities from this "fly on the wall" reporter. It's unbelievable that he was given so much access; it's clear that no one in the White House has any idea how to run an office. The few people who do have a clue are completely ignored (and mostly gone already). It's a fast and fascinating read.

I will say that it appears to have been rushed to press without sufficient editing; I assume future editions will correct the many typos. The writing itself is not the best; there are many sentences that simply don't read well. Mr. Wolff has a habit of using M dashes so profusely that it obstructs the clarity of the sentences; I found myself re-reading many of these sentences over and over. But don't let that hold you back! This is definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to understand how totally wacky Trump and all of his minions are.

Michael Wolff. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018. 321 pages. ISBN 9781250158062.

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

A lot has been written about this book since it was published last year. Having been an ardent Hillary supporter, I was curious about her take on the 2016 election and eager to read this. The first thing that struck me was that the book sounded just like her. I know she probably had a good editor, but the writing itself was just what I expected: intelligent, earnest, compassionate, and oftentimes funny. What I didn't expect was how devastating the first few chapters were, as Hillary describes what it was like for her on November 8 and 9. I'm glad I was alone while I read these chapters; they evoked the same crushing shock and depression that I felt on those days, but it was worse because I was feeling her pain and shock as well. Hillary writes about how she navigated the 2016 election campaign, the folks she worked with, and the issues that she cares about. While I'm interested in the issues, the best parts of the book for me were the personal stories. It's clear that she cares deeply about her friends, colleagues, and supporters. She saves her deeper criticism for Trump (no surprise) and others, such as Congressman Ryan Zinke, who had referred to Hillary in 2014 as the "Antichrist." This is an excellent memoir that I would recommend to anyone who follows politics. Now I can't wait to read Barack and Michelle's memoirs!

Hillary Rodham Clinton. What Happened. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. 492 pages. ISBN 9781501175565.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

I loved this story about a young man who experiences a lifetime of pain in one summer a few years after the second world war in Norway. Trond is spending the summer with his father in rural Norway near the Swedish border. He's made friends with Jon, a boy near his age, and they have adventures in the woods and mountains nearby. The story is told by an older Trond who has returned to the area to retire after his wife dies.

Jon and Trond's fathers feel some macho competitiveness between them. Trond's father was part of the Norwegian resistance along with Jon's mother. Jon's father refused to participate, and his petty resentment against his wife's resistance activities led to her exposure and flight along with Trond's father to Sweden for the remaining months of the war. Years later, their competitive streak leads to an accident which causes Jon's father to break his leg and eventually leave his marriage. Trond's father never returns home to his family, leaving Trond broken and always yearning for the father who abandoned him. Years later, Trond returns to rural Norway and seredipitously reconnects with Jon's younger brother. Both older men are pained by their past experiences, but retain their compassion for others. As the story unfolds, the reader learns of all the actions of the past, both during and after the war that affect them still. This is extremely well-written and translated.

Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2003. 258 pages. ISBN 9781555974701.

Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason

Pink Floyd is my all-time favorite band, and I really enjoyed this inside account of the band's history by the only member to have been part of the band during its entire existence. Nick Mason's writing style is charming and funny; he takes a dry and witty approach to telling their story. I often found myself laughing as he clearly pokes fun at himself and others.

Inside Out opens with a description of how Nick met Roger Waters at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) where both were studying architecture. After they became friends, they formed a series of bands with a number of their friends and schoolmates, eventually settling on the name Pink Floyd and with the lineup of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Rick Wright, and the author. They became known as a psychedelic rock band, based on their practice of using lights, video, and sound effects to enhance their shows. Mason describes the circumstances that led the band to replace Syd with David Gilmour. Ostensibly hired as a second guitarist because Syd was becoming increasingly unreliable in the live shows, David effectively took over Syd's part in the band when they decided one day not to pick Syd up for a show, although they did eventually have to make it official. Roger Waters took over as the lead songwriter.

Subsequent chapters lead the reader through the development of each new album, including two collaborations with Barbet Schroeder, two of whose films they provided soundtracks for, More and La Vallee. I remember going to see More as a sophomore at Penn State. Back then (1982-83) student groups raised money by showing movies all over campus, and students had a dozen or more choices every weekend. My interest in seeing More was primarily because of the Pink Floyd soundtrack, and I remember the movie being incredibly depressing (it's about a German student who meets a girl on vacation; she introduces him to heroin, and it ends tragically). But the soundtrack is good. I listened to it while reading this book and was impressed all over again. I recommend The Nile Song.

The author doesn't shy away from describing the personality conflicts that arose throughout the 1970s and which culminated with the release of The Final Cut. I was impressed with his ability to tell the story without recrimination, but that's perhaps easier after decades have passed. Inside Out was originally published in 2004, but it's been updated to bring the story up to 2017. I could tell from the first page that I was going to like this book, and not just because I'm a fan; it's extremely well-written, with a lot of humor and compassion. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who's a Pink Floyd fan.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year-End Roundup, 2017

This post includes the books that I read in December, plus a few that I forgot to write about from earlier this fall. I just realized that the four non-fiction books that I read in December were all humorous. This is how I'm avoiding all the year-end news wrap-ups!

I really enjoyed this memoir by David Litt, one of President Obama's speechwriters. Litt writes about how he got involved in the Obama campaign and administration; I particularly enjoyed how he contributed to some of the funnier moments, such as  White House Correspondent's dinner jokes. For a fun perspective and insights on what it was like working in the Obama administration, I recommend this book.

This is a funny but incredibly raunchy memoir by Amy Schumer, comedian and actor (in Trainwreck and Snatched). I'd never watched any of her shows or other performances, so her comedy was unfamiliar to me. Entertaining and sometimes a little sad, raunchy and fairly gross at times. Definitely not for everyone!

Waiting for my flight from Pittsburgh to Albany earlier this month, I purchased this book (and the next) to read in the airport and on the short flight to Albany. Very funny!

As a follow-up to the previous book, this one also includes many gems by the author's father. These are both short (under 200 pages) and a great way to pass a few hours in the airport.

And now the fiction. The first three were our most recent book club picks:

I really liked this novel about a group of family and friends set in North Carolina. Ava's marriage is falling apart, and she's mourning the child that she can't seem to conceive. Ava's mother Sylvia is mourning the absence of her son, and has befriended a man in prison who dialed her phone number randomly just to talk to someone. JJ, a local boy who left the town and became a successful businessman, has returned home to see if he can rekindle his long-ago romance with Ava. This is an excellent first novel that I found completely engrossing.

I loved this novel set in in a remote village in Wales during WWII. Told from multiple characters' viewpoints, it's the story of a German prisoner, Karsten, placed in a POW camp in Wales. Esther is a local girl who befriends Karsten when he escapes temporarily from the camp. Jim is an evacuee who's housed on Esther's father's sheep farm. Rotheram is a German exile who's working with British intelligence. He interviews Rudolph Hess to determine whether he's fit for trial, and is sent to interview the POWs as well. This book is very well-written and tells a fascinating story about an aspect of WWII that is perhaps less well-known.

This is a mystery written by a local author (from Glens Falls, NY). Author Kate White worked in magazine publishing for years (including serving as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan) before she turned to writing mysteries. This book is completely implausible, but fun.

It's been years since I've read a Sara Paretsky V.I. Warshawski mystery. I liked this more than I expected. In her earlier books I found V.I. so caustic that she was a little off-putting as a character. In this book she was much less obnoxious, but still assertive and persistent. I enjoyed the story and characters, and found the writing very good; it's a real page-turner.

It's pretty rare that I take a real dislike to a book, but here are two that I really didn't like:

This is a historical novel about a woman in Tennessee who took it upon herself to re-bury more than a thousand confederate soldiers after a neighbor decided to plow them under so that he could plant crops on the field where they were originally buried. It's told from multiple viewpoints, but it just dragged on and I had to literally force myself to finish it. I'm glad that I learned about the Battle of Franklin and this episode of the Civil War, but this is a rare case of historical fiction being less interesting or entertaining than reading the history itself.

I thought I'd like this book, an Oprah pick and one set in rural Pennsylvania by a local Pennsylvania author. But I just hated it. I forced myself to finish thinking it might have some redeeming qualities, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't like the characters and I didn't like the plot. I have a hard time understanding why it would have been an Oprah pick.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Latest books, December 3, 2017

 This is a fascinating look at the history of humans, from our origins in the distant past to today. Author Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses what he describes as the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, and the scientific revolution. Well-written and impossible to put down.

Rising sea levels are just one side effect of global warming. This book explores how the rising sea levels will affect all of the coastal communities around the world. Author Jeff Goodell is a writer for Rolling Stone magazine who has written about global change before. He shares his extensive research and reporting in this book. This is a compelling read and presents a convincing argument to move inland!

W. Kamau Bell was the closing speaker at a recent ALA conference. I only caught part of his presentation, but found him funny, thoughtful, and authentic. A comedian who also has a CNN series, United Shades of America, he shares many of his experiences with readers in this thought-provoking and heartfelt book. I really enjoyed this book and am looking for more to come from Mr. Bell.

I've been a big fan of Al Franken since I read his book Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. I saw Mr. Franken on a stage with Bill O'Reilly at the 2003 BookExpoAmerica conference in Los Angeles, a panel that was moderated by Molly Ivins. I enjoyed reading about how he made the decision to run for the Senate, his experiences campaigning, and his perspectives on recent political events. I was dismayed when I heard about the groping allegations, which became public on the same day that I was reading about how much he enjoyed going on the USO tours. Regardless of the outcome of the senate ethics inquiry, this is an interesting and well-written memoir.

I loved this novel about ancient Rome and Cicero's rise from Senator to Consul. Robert Harris' writing is very good; it's a real page turner. He brings history to life in a way that no history book can.

This is the first in a series of fantasy novels that follow the story of Merry Gentry, a member of the faerie royal family in the U.S., and also a detective. This is very fun, fast-moving, escapist fiction; just what's needed right now!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

The main character of this psychological thriller is a defense lawyer who takes on the case of a young girl who has committed a school shooting. It brings back long-ago memories of when she herself was the victim of a violent crime. At the same time she's trying to make amends with her estranged husband, an assistant district attorney. It's fast-paced, with well-developed characters.

Karin Slaughter. The Good Daughter. New York: William Morrow, 2017. 503 pages. ISBN 9780062430243.

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish is written by a sister duo, Lynne and Valerie Constantine, who write under the pseudonym Liv Constantine. It's a slightly trashy thriller that tells the story of a young woman named Amber Patterson who's determined to steal the life of another woman, Daphne Parrish, who's got what seems like the perfect life. She's married to a wealthy businessman, lives in a beautiful house, and has two young daughters. Amber begins to insert herself into their lives, and everything seems to be going according to plan. Little does she know that she may have been the one being played all along. This was a quick read, so it's good for pure escapism, but it's so implausible and (I'm sorry to say) slightly obvious and predictable, that I can't really recommend it. Stick with something that has a little more substance.

Live Constantine. The Last Mrs. Parrish. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 392 pages. ISBN 9780062667571. Advance Reader's Edition.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

I loved this book about how dictionaries are created. Author Kory Stamper has worked at Merriam-Webster since 1998 and she has written a tell-all about the challenges and controversies involved in creating a modern, up-to-date dictionary. Written in clear and lively prose, this book takes both a serious and humorous look at how dictionaries are made. This is also a personal story about Ms. Stamper and her love of language. I should say languages, though, because to be a lexicographer, you have to have a good sense of the other languages that are the building blocks of English, like French and Latin.

Whether dictionaries should be descriptive or prescriptive is one of the questions that Stamper addresses. While that might have been decided already, there are still many who believe they should be prescriptive, that is, telling readers how to use words, rather than descriptive, telling them how words are used. I can understand the viewpoint of the Prescriptivists, as I have my own pet peeve that I wish the dictionary could validate (reticent vs. reluctant), but in the end the Descriptivists win out. Language is always changing, and as use changes, what's acceptable eventually follows. Sometimes, as in the case of "irregardless," the dictionary notes its common usage but relies upon usage notes and the use of "nonstandard" to indicate its lack of correctness.

This book will be a fun, entertaining, and enlightening read for anyone who loves words, language, and grammar. It includes an index and a bibliography including several books that I'd like to read:
  • Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Herbert Charles Morton. The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove’s controversial dictionary and its critics.
  • David Skinner. The Story of Ain't: America, its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.

Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. 296 pages. ISBN 9781101870946.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Logical Family: a Memoir, by Armistead Maupin

Fans of Armistead Maupin will love this memoir. In it the author talks about his childhood in North Carolina with a very conservative father. He describes his grandmother who encouraged his artistic tendencies, including acting and writing. He writes about his navy service in Vietnam and Cambodia, his time working with Jesse Helms, and how he met President Nixon. Mr. Maupin describes his move to San Francisco where he worked as a reporter for the Associated Press for a time before he began his weekly fiction column that eventually became Tales of the City.

Mr. Maupin is unflinchingly honest, and the book is touching and funny throughout. He has a way of dropping names and hints which make the later revelations all the funnier. He talks candidly about his friendship with Rock Hudson, and acquaintances like Harvey Milk. He believes that people have a responsibility to be honest about their sexuality, and he doesn't regret "outing" Rock Hudson when it became known that Hudson was ill with AIDS. He writes about losing his virginity, coming out, and his relationships with his parents.

I really enjoyed this book. It was the August selection for my book club and it was a hit with all of us. Although the book doesn't come out until October, I was fortunate to receive several copies of the advance reading copy at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago. Anyone who likes Armistead Maupin or enjoys a good memoir would like it.

Armistead Maupin. Logical Family: a Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 294 pages. ISBN 9780062391223.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

The Gatekeepers is a fascinating look inside every White House from Nixon's administration through Obama's. Author Chris Whipple devotes a chapter to each president and his respective chiefs of staff. It's clear that the success of each administration hinged at least partly on how the Oval Office was managed, and much of that comes down to the organizational skills of, and authority granted to, the chiefs of staff. Presidents who tried to micromanage the Office's activities, with everyone reporting directly to him, had much more difficult times that those who had stronger chiefs. Chiefs who were able to stand up to the President when necessary were better able to steer him to sound decision making.

Filled with intriguing anecdotes, quotes, and interviews with key players, The Gatekeepers is a riveting look at recent history. The author touches on many of the most important events of the last 50 years, including the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Cold War, the Iran-Contra Scandal, the first Gulf War, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 9/11 and its aftermath, Obamacare, and much, much more. I found it particularly gripping given our current political climate. I wonder what today's events will look like when we look back in 20 or 30 years, and I wonder if it will be as distressing to recall as it is to live through it every day, with the horror show we see perpetually on television and in the papers.

I found The Gatekeepers hard to put down. It's well supported with robust bibliography and notes sections. Mr. Whipple's style is clear and his writing flows like a novel; I hope he continues to write popular history.

I received this book from Blogging for Books.

Chris Whipple. The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. New York: Crown, 2017. 365 pages. ISBN 9780804138246.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

My book club picked My Beloved World for our May read. Sonia Sotomayor had recently visited the University at Albany, although I was traveling at the time and unable to attend her presentation, held in our basketball arena to a sold-out crowd. I was eager to read her memoir as part of my effort to counter the horror of the daily news with affirming works by people who are worthy of admiration. After reading Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, I was ready for another work that would remind me that principled and intelligent public servants do exist.

My Beloved World tells Ms. Sotomayor's life story from childhood through her first appointment as a judge. I loved reading about her family, both here in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, as well as her academic challenges and achievements. She breezes pretty quickly through her years at Princeton and her time at Yale Law School, but I really appreciated learning how she would identify the best student and ask them for advice about how to be a better student. Post-graduation she worked as an Assistant District Attorney, then for a law firm, and volunteered for numerous positions in important advocacy organizations, in the process getting the right experience to be considered for a judge-ship.

This book is a thoughtful look back at Ms. Sotomayor's experiences growing up, going off to school, entering the workforce, and becoming a judge. She ends the book at the point that she becomes a judge; I can only hope that she's going to continue the story at a later time; hopefully she won't have to wait until she retires. My Beloved World is well-written, clear, and concise. Highly recommended!

Sonia Sotomayor. My Beloved World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 315 pages. ISBN 9780307594884.

June-August 2017

People of the Book tells the story of a famous book through the imagined clues left behind in its pages. A moth, a wine stain, and evidence of salt water on its pages reveal clues to its adventures, from its creation to its rescue during World War II and again during the siege on Sarajevo during the 1990s Balkan wars. It's a well-written and fascinating example of historical fiction; I look forward to reading more of Geraldine Brooks' work.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel that explores philosophy and religion as its characters travel through space to encounter another civilization. As Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor of an expedition to another planet, heals from his injuries, he slowly tells the story of what happened when they met intelligent beings that didn't quite meet their expectations and hopes. I loved this story and I'm eager to read the sequel, Children of God.

Author Sarah Schmidt became obsessed with the story of Lizzie Borden. A native of Melbourne, Australia, her interest was so great that she traveled to the U.S. to visit the Borden home and stay overnight. See What I Have Done explores the Borden tale through the viewpoints of Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and a drifter named Benjamin (a fictional character). The characters and their voices are distinct and create a fascinating picture of what might have happened that day in 1892.

I've only read one Henning Mankell mystery: The Troubled Man, which is his last Kurt Wallander book. I wouldn't normally start a series at the end, but I had received an advanced reading copy at Book Expo America, so I gave it a shot. I found it a little bit sad and depressing, but maybe that's because he was wrapping up the series. Secrets in the Fire is a children's book based on the life of a young girl who lost her legs to a land mine. Along with its two sequels, Playing with Fire, and Shadow of the Leopard, it reveals the plight that so many regions of the world experience, not being safe in their own homeland due to conflict and war.

Peter Mayle's The Marseille Caper is a fun, fast-moving romp through Marseille. Sam Levitt, an amateur detective, is hired to help his client secure a contract to develop beachfront property in Marseille. Lots of action, adventure, good food, and wine drinking follow. Just what was needed for a post-semester break from reality.

I've set a goal to read all of the Jo Nesbo Harry Hole detective stories in order. I've enjoyed a few of his later books, but with Cockroaches his writing is nowhere near as good as in his later books. Perhaps it has something to do with the translation, because there are many phrases throughout that just don't ring true or make sense. My guess is that after he made it big his earlier books were translated into English, but the books weren't really all that good, and the translations were not the best. I will keep going with the series, however; at least I'll be able to track when he began to get really good.

Friday, June 2, 2017

May 2017 Reads

A good mystery set in Northern California. Matthew Lindstrom has been given a tip that his wife, missing for 14 years, is alive and well. He decides to confront her, only to find that she's gone missing again, and he's the logical suspect.
Can a classic car really be a portal to another dimension or planet? That seems to be what's at the center of this suspenseful novel. For decades the Pennsylvania State Police in a small town in Western Pennsylvania have monitored a Buick, conducting experiments and keeping it hidden away. What happens when someone decides it's gone on too long and decides to destroy it?
How have we allowed ourselves to get so busy that we don't have time to enjoy each day? We take on too much and can't say no. We allow our guilt and others' expectations to rule our lives and feel trapped in our overly-busy routines. This book explores this phenomenon and helps readers understand that there are other ways to live.
A short but compelling mystery set in a small town in Peru.