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.