Monday, November 12, 2018

Fall non-fiction


A look at the latest technologies, their promises and perils. Very intense. One of the few books I wanted to start over as soon as I was finished so that I didn't miss anything.

















A plan for how we might fight climate change and its effects on civilization. Published in 2009, so it's more optimistic than it might be if it were published today. Hopefully we can get back on track in 2020.


This is an deep dive into how the brain handles distractions, with a specific focus on newer technologies and their impact. Very good.
















Everything you already knew about him, but more of it. 



Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Collection of Novellas

I was in the mood for shorter works of fiction this past week or so, and I read a number of short novels and two children's books.

The Marriage of True Minds was one of my favorites. It's the story of Lena, a lawyer who is called on to defend her ex-husband, Nick, who has committed crimes to make a point about animal rights and environmentalism. She finds herself agreeing to supervise his counseling and community service, to the detriment of her current romantic interest. This short novel is heartwarming and funny, and will keep you guessing until the end.








Dear Committee Members is an academic satire. It consists of letters written by professor Jason Fitger, as he responds to requests from students, colleagues, and others as they try to get jobs, get into graduate school, get into writing programs, etc. All I can say about this one is that while it's amusing to a certain extent, satire just isn't my favorite genre, so I got tired of it about halfway through. I speed-read my way through the rest to get a sense of how the story developed, but I don't feel that I missed a lot. I picked this book out because it was recommended a number of times on academic blogs that I read on The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education; many readers found it hilarious, so I suppose I'm an outlier!

According to the blurb on the back cover of this book (which I have in advanced reader's copy/uncorrected proof form), "Anna Enquist is one of Holland's best loved and celebrated writers." However, I found this grim novel hard to like. Louise is a teacher of classical languages and Nico is an administrator in a hospital. They are both suffering the pain of losing a daughter, not to death, but to the unknown: she ran away six months ago just after she turned 18. They go through their joyless days, pretending that it didn't happen and never talking about her. Nico is promoted to hospital director, then proceeds to deteriorate psychologically until he falls apart. This short novel packs a lot of sadness into its 105 pages.







The Dybbuk is a ghost story in the form of a play written by Shloyme Zanvl Rappaport, who published under the pseudonym S. Ansky. I read it first in a comparative literature class as an undergraduate, and decided to re-read it this week. The dybbuk in question is the ghost of a young man who was promised to wed the daughter of another man. When the young man's father died young, the other man reneged on his promise, setting the stage for the tragedy that follows. Ansky died before the play became a big success; it continues to be staged to this day. This edition is illustrated very nicely with black and white ink drawings or watercolors.








Flying to Nowhere is a short gothic mystery set in a monastery on a remote island. It begins with a grotesque scene of a priest insisting on taking a horse to the island on a boat; there isn't a good landing spot and the horse jumps out of the boat, breaking its legs on the rocks along the shore. That was enough to turn me off of this book (was that really necessary?), but I valiantly continued. Once on the island, the priest, Vane, interviews the Abbot and others, trying to find out what happened to the pilgrims who came to the island in recent months. The Abbot is clearly hiding something. I won't tell more about the plot, but it's not pleasant!









After reading The Dybbuk, I picked this book off of my shelves. Written for children, it's the story of a ventriloquist, Avrom Amos, who meets up with a dybbuk, who wants help getting revenge on those who were responsible for his death during the Holocaust. The dybbuk inhabits Avrom, and uses the dummy to draw attention to the war criminals still at large. I really enjoyed this book; it uses the repartee between Avrom and the dybbuk to draw attention to a very serious subject.










This is a cute graphic novel about Amelia, a girl who has had to move from the city to a small town. She hangs out with her friends, goes to a dance with a boy, finds out her mother is also going on a first date, and learns about her ancestors. The art work is very nicely done with great color. I think this would be appealing to most children; it's funny but also deals with issues that most would recognize from their own life.












Sunday, October 21, 2018

Fall fiction

I got a little behind in my book reviews this fall, so here's a roundup of the fiction that I've read:

I really enjoyed The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder, about a teenager who's trying to solve the murder of the young woman who recently moved back into his neighborhood. Gifted with synesthesia, which causes him to see colors and other stimuli as colors, 13-year old Jasper doesn't have a clear recollection of the night that she died, and he has a suspicion that he's responsible. This book reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, by Mark Haddon.









No God in Sight, by Altaf Tyrewala, is a collection of short vignettes about related characters in Bombay. Some of the chapters are only a few paragraphs, while others span 10 or more pages. Each character's story leads to the next, so a chapter about a young girl seeking an abortion leads to a chapter about the abortionist, which then leads to a chapter about the abortionist's father. Several dozen chapters later, the narrative circles back to the first character's boyfriend. It's funny and sad, painting a picture of all swaths of life in modern Bombay. I read this in one morning; it was impossible to put down.









We the Animals is a novella about the childhood of three young mixed-race boys in upstate New York. With a white mother and a Puerto Rican father, who married as teenagers, the unnamed narrator's childhood was filled with joy, poverty, and violence. Lyrical and poetic, this is an emotional journey into a young boy's psyche. I loved this book.














I was a little disappointed in the latest from Karin Slaughter. I was impressed with the last book that I read by her and I had high hopes for this one, but the plot and characters just weren't convincing to me. Andrea is the main character who is thrust into a dangerous adventure when her mother is revealed to be someone other than Andrea believed. It becomes clear to the reader (but not Andrea) that her mother is a fugitive from a long-ago crime, and there are people after her to make sure the secret is kept. Even through the non-stop action, it dragged on a little too long. I would take a pass at this one.









The Ninth Wife tells the story of a woman (Bess) who falls in love with a man she meets at her birthday party. When he asks her to marry him, he comes clean and tells her that he's been married eight times before. The rest of the book consists of her trying to come to terms with his past as she drives her grandparents across the country to their new retirement home. While the writing is good, I found the premise off-putting and the agonizing over what she should do was a little too dragged out. I also had little patience with his story, which is revealed in alternating chapters with the main character's. There are a lot of additional characters and stories woven into the book, from the grandparent's long-simmering anger, Bess' neighbor, who's mourning his partner, Bess' ex-boyfriend and his fiance, and how they're all interrelated with Bess' new boyfriend. Overall, this has good writing, but it's a little too long and drawn-out.





The Collini Case is an excellent mystery by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German author and lawyer. Caspar Leinen is a newly-minted lawyer and takes as his first case the defense of a man, Fabrizio Collini, who not only murdered a wealthy industrialist, but admitted such. As Collini refuses to explain why he murdered the man, Leinen is forced to investigate Collini's past to learn his motives. At under 200 pages, it is sparely written, but compelling.










The Grimm Legacy is a YA adventure set in New York. Elizabeth is happy to take a job at the New York Circulating Repository, which lends objects rather than books. As she advances through her training, she's eventually trusted with access to the Grimm Collection, which includes magical objects mentioned in Grimm's fairy tales. As she makes friends with her fellow co-workers, she learns that some objects have been stolen and used for nefarious purposes, and she gets drawn into an adventure trying to solve the mystery and get the magical objects back. Lots of fun!










Zom-B is the story of a zombie attack that starts in Ireland and moves to B's English town. B's father is racist and doesn't mind when the zombies are attacking the Irish or immigrants, but when they attack closer to home, it calls for action. B is caught up in a zombie attack at school, and barely escapes alive. B's own racist views are challenged throughout the book. This is the first of a twelve-volume series, and the resolution to B's questions will have to be revealed in a later book. With a flawed main character, it addresses contemporary issues such as racism along with zombie blood and gore.









Home after Dark is a graphic novel about a young boy who is abandoned first by his mother and then by his father, who leaves him with a neighbor. Told mostly through the illustrations, Home after Dark shows us the perils of adolescence without a loving family. Sad, yet ultimately hopeful.















I've long been a fan of Bill Amend's Foxtrot comic strip, and this collection from 2006 doesn't disappoint. I got this at the 2006 BookExpo America convention, and one of my favorite things about this is the personalized inscription by the author (see below).

























Monday, September 3, 2018

The Complete Lhasa Apso, by Norman and Carolyn Herbel

This is a good introduction to the history of the Lhasa Apso breed and its care. Published in 1979, it provides a history of the breed in the United States and England, including major breeders and specific dogs brought from Tibet. The book discusses the official standard in both the U.S. and England, and goes into great detail on all of its specific points: character, size, color, body shape, coat, mouth and muzzle, head, eyes, ears, legs, feet, tail and carriage, and movement. The authors provide instructions for grooming, showing, and training a Lhasa Apso. Other chapters address selecting a puppy, the character of the Lhasa Apso, and obedience training.

Although dated, this is a good introduction to the breed. If you're interested in specific bloodlines and pedigrees, this book provides a lot of history and background, including pedigree charts. It also includes a lot of information about specific breeders, although those might not be relevant today. There are many black and white pictures throughout, and 16 pages of color photographs. Overall, this is a good introduction to the breed, especially if you're interested in the history of Lhasa Apso breeding in the U.S. and England. There is also a bibliography for further reading.

Norman and Carolyn Herbel. The Complete Lhasa Apso. New York: Howell Book House, 1979. 302 pages. ISBN 0876052081.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

New Slow City: Living Simply in the World's Fastest City, by William Powers

Author William Powers spent a year living in a twelve by twelve foot square cabin, which he documented in his book Twelve by Twelve: A One-Rom Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream. Now married and living in Queens, he and his wife decide to move to a micro apartment in Manhattan to see if they can live the slow life there. Powers is determined to downsize his work life as well, so he commits to working only two days a week so that his weekends are five days long. He writes about enjoying the parks in Manhattan, biking and hiking in nearby parks, kayaking on the Hudson, and appreciating the calmer pace of his life. He very thoughtfully explores issues related to the environment, sustainability, food, advertising, and more. He finds himself spending more than he planned, so he and his wife decide to avail themselves of all the free entertainment in the city, including free short-term memberships at gyms and yoga studios. It reminded me of the summer of 1996 when I was trying to pay off my credit card and I refused to buy myself anything (other than food and necessities) for about six months (I made an exception for a new pair of running shoes when my old ones were too worn). I took advantage of free concerts at the museum, free movies in the park, and arts festivals all summer; I never ran out of things to do. I remember telling one of my friends what I was doing, and she replied "Oh, I just couldn't live like that!"

After several months of only working two days a week, Powers agreed to teach a class on sustainable development at NYU. He and his wife are on vacation, but not too far away, when Hurricane Sandy struck, and he shares his feelings about the city and the effects of climate change. He attends a meeting in Morocco and explores slow living there. Finally, he and his wife visit his daughter in Bolivia, and they decide to buy some property to build a home in a small village. She's pregnant, and the book closes with the birth of their child and the move to Bolivia.

Overall, this is a heartfelt and sincere exploration of how Powers attempted to live life at a slower pace in the middle of Manhattan. His meditations and explorations about a different approach to life are inspiring and thought-provoking.

William Powers. New Slow City: Living Simply in the World's Fastest City. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2014. 255 pages. ISBN 9781608682393.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I loved this novel about a middle-aged man who was sentenced to house arrest in a hotel in Moscow not long after the Russian Revolution. He was considered part of the aristocracy, but had written a famous revolutionary poem, so he was allowed to live. Rather than being sentenced to Siberia or elsewhere, he was punished with house arrest and forced to move from his suite to an attic room. The novel details his life as he makes friends with other house guests, young and old, and eventually asks to be taken on as head waiter in the hotel restaurant. He eventually adopts a young girl whose mother disappeared after leaving the girl in his care. He befriends people of all walks of life, from famous actresses to bureaucrats, writers, and spies. This book is funny and touching, and it's extremely well-written. Just writing about it makes me want to read it again! I highly recommend this book.

Amor Towles. A Gentleman in Moscow. New York: Viking, 2016. 462 pages. ISBN 9780670026197. (Advance uncorrected proofs, signed by author.)

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

I know I'm late to the game reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, which came out in 2012. I've read so many references to it that I finally broke down and got a copy out of the library. This is an easy and fun book to read; however, it reminds me of so many other books that I was a little disappointed.

The first section is about the habits of individuals. This was the most interesting part for me. I wanted to read about people and how we can break bad habits, instill good habits, or use our habits to improve ourselves. This section addresses these issues, but spends a little too much time on football anecdotes (how the Indianapolis Colts changed their habits on the field to be more successful and win more games).

The second section is about the habits of organizations. Duhigg tells anecdotes about Alcoa, Starbucks, and others to show how workplace habits can help companies succeed. This didn't work as well for me. By habits, Duhigg seems to mean policies and procedures. Basically, he's saying that if you change workplace policies and procedures, and provide better training to your employees, you will instill these as habits that will result in better outcomes. This section felt like many other popular management books that tell anecdotes about a few companies to illustrate some principles. It's entertaining, and even a little inspirational, but didn't really seem to be about habits, except in a very broad sense. The third section discusses the habits of societies, and focuses on the Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Again, the author is trying to say that we react to situations based on our habits (e.g., accepting poor treatment on the bus), and that if we change that habit, and encourage others to do so as well, we can make societal changes.

Overall, this is an entertaining and fast read, much like many other popular business books available. It will make you think and it is definitely inspiring. But framing all of these management approaches with the concept of "habits" is a bit of a stretch. I would have preferred a book that was focused more on the personal approach to breaking bad habits and instilling good ones, but that's not this book.

Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. 371 pages. ISBN 9781400069286.

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, by Francine Prose

Like most of us, I read Anne Frank's diary while in school, either 7th or 8th grade. It wasn't assigned, but was recommended by a fellow student (thank you Lauren Murphy!). While I haven't picked it up since, the book made a strong impression that has lasted many years. When I visited Amsterdam in 2009 I was able to visit the Anne Frank Museum, and it brought the diary to life for me in a way that just reading it could not.

With this book, author Francine Prose has described the history of the diary's publication as well as the plays and film based on it. I learned that Anne began to revise her diary herself in response to a news broadcast that said that such records of events would be worthy of publication after the war. In less than four months' time, she rewrote much of the diary. When her father returned to the annex after the war, he was given both of these versions. He edited them, sometimes keeping the original, sometimes keeping the revised version, for publication.

Originally, Otto Frank found it difficult to find a publisher for the diary and enjoyed lackluster sales. He was helped in the U.S. by a positive review by Meyer Levin in the New York Times. Levin also came to an informal agreement with Otto Frank to be allowed to write a play based on the diary. However, producers didn't like Levin's approach, leading to years of strife and lawsuits. Eventually other writers were identified and the play became a success, followed by the film.

I wasn't aware that there were different versions of the diary. They include Anne's original, Anne's revised version, and Otto's edited version. A later edition presents all three of these versions together in columns so that readers can compare them with each other. Prose includes excerpts from both the original and the revised to show how Anne's writing matured in the two years that she was in the annex. I was also not aware of the controversies surrounding the play and film (and have seen neither). Prose has drawn a picture of the diary that reveals not just the impact that it's had on society but also the high emotions that it arouses in readers. She also touches on detractors and Holocaust deniers and how they've misrepresented and misinterpreted the diary to try to make their (non-existent) case.

I found this book fascinating. Francine Prose is an excellent writer and has created a thoughtful and interesting work with Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.

Francine Prose. Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 304 pages. ISBN 9780061430794. (My copy is an uncorrected proof, signed by the author.)

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield

This is a fascinating look at the history of the fonts that we take for granted every day. Author Simon Garfield describes how fonts were made in the early days of printing, and how fonts developed over the centuries. The introduction of a variety of fonts in early computers exploded into the thousands of options that we have today. Mr. Garfield discusses the fonts used in newspapers, advertisements, posters, and road signs. He delves into why some fonts are loved and others are despised (Comic Sans). He relates anecdotes about how the inappropriate use of modern fonts has revealed forgeries, and tells us about experts who are constantly noting the anachronistic use of fonts in period films. Most chapters contain a "fontbreak," which focuses on a particular font, such as Gill Sans, Albertus, Futura, Verdana, Doves, Mrs Eaves, Mr Eaves, Frutiger, and more. One fontbreak discusses the "interrobang," a character that combines a question mark with an exclamation point (it didn't catch on). One whole chapter is devoted to the ampersand.

This was a really fun look at fonts and how ever-present they are in our lives. Anyone who enjoys reading about printing and publishing would enjoy Just My Type.

Simon Garfield. Just My Type: A Book About Fonts. New York: Gotham Books, 2011. 354 pages. ISBN 9781592406524.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Concise History of Germany, by Mary Fulbrook, 2nd ed.


I mentioned in my last post that I read a few books about Germany in preparation for my week-long vacation in Berlin in July. I selected this brief overview of German history to get me thinking about German history and culture before I got there. I enjoyed this portrayal of Germany which starts with the Middle Ages and brings us to the early 21st century. The second edition was published in 2004 so more recent events are left out. Chapters cover medieval Germany, the Reformation, the rise of Prussia, industrialization and the First World War, WWII, and the split into two countries. A very brief chapter addresses the period after reunification.

This was fun to read while I was in Germany and after I got back. I will need to make a much deeper dive into German history if I'm going to keep all the Friedrichs and Wilhelms separate! This book contains an index, suggestions for future reading that are organized chronologically and topically, and many black and white photographs throughout.

Mary Fulbrook. A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 277 pages. ISBN 9780521540711.

Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader, by Matthew Qvortrup

In preparation for our summer vacation in Berlin, I wanted to read a little about Germany. I picked this biography of Angela Merkel and an overview of German history that I'll write about in another post. Author Matthew Qvortrup is a professor of political science at Coventry University in the UK, and with this book he has written an interesting narrative of Angela Merkel's life. The focus is less on her early life and more on her development as a politician. I found her background fascinating. Ms. Merkel grew up in East Germany and is the first post-reunification chancellor to come from the East. She is fluent in Russian which has helped her over the years as she negotiates trade agreements and other issues with Russia.

Growing up as the daughter of a pastor in the GDR, she had to learn to be very careful with her words and actions. In college, Ms. Merkel studied physics and mathematics; she was a scientist before she turned to politics. Physics was a field that was relatively safe from Marxist theory and a refuge for many. After German reunification, she became involved in politics and rose rapidly in the Christian Democratic Union, a center-right political party. Her ability to compromise has allowed her to achieve much in her time as chancellor. This book provides significant insight to her development as a politician and signature achievements, particularly her stance on the immigration crisis. This book was published in 2017, so it doesn't contain much about recent U.S.-German relations, unfortunately.

As I mentioned above, I was reading this book to give myself a sense of German history and current events to prepare for my recent week-long vacation in Berlin. I wondered before the trip whether we would encounter any negative reaction because of Trump's horrendous treatment of Ms. Merkel at various international meetings. However, we were met with nothing but friendliness and generosity. My basic conversational German skills were enough to get by, and almost everyone spoke English, so when my German broke down we had no problem communicating.

This book had an index, a lengthy notes section, eight pages of color photographs, and a glossary. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys current events and biographies. I particularly liked reading about politics that had nothing to do with our current horror show of an administration! It's restorative to read about a politician with values, someone who's trying to do some good in the world.

Matthew Qvortrup. Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2017. 377 pages. ISBN 9781468315035.

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

O
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.