Sunday, May 18, 2014

AAUW State College Branch Annual Used Book Sale (May 10-13, 2014)

The AAUW (American Association of University Women) State College Branch holds an annual used book sale on the Pennsylvania State University main campus. It's reported to be one of the largest used book sales in the country, and this year they offered 4,000 cartons of books, estimated to include over 400,000 titles. The sale spans four days, usually over Mother's Day weekend. Saturday and Sunday are "full-price" days, Monday is "half-price", and Tuesday is "Bag Day", when bags of books go for $5. AAUW member volunteers work year round to organize and price donations so that the book sale runs smoothly. All books are categorized and placed on tables according to genre and subject: fiction, literature, science fiction, mystery, history, memoir, business, education, social sciences, foreign languages, cookbooks, mathematics, self-help, art, and others that I can't remember.

I attended the book sale every year that I worked at Penn State (2000-2012), and I've also attended the last two years, using it as an excuse to visit friends and family. I'm not such a fanatic that I have to be there when it opens up first thing in the morning, but there are a lot of folks who like to be the first in to the sale. They include dealers and collectors as well as your general run-of-the-mill bibliophiles. Usually I go in the afternoon or morning of each day, so this year was a big change for me. Since the book sale fell not only on Mother's Day, but also on graduation weekend, I couldn't get a hotel room for the weekend. The closest rooms were in Clearfield and Altoona. While that was do-able, I decided not to go for the weekend, and instead drove down on Sunday and stayed until Tuesday.

I arrived at the sale on Sunday evening after dinner, and I was pleased to see that the usual elbow-to-elbow crowd was much thinner in the evening. Since it was full-price day and I had every intention of coming back the next two days, I was very selective and only picked out four reasonably-priced history books. I dropped by the next morning as well, thinking that there wouldn't be a big crowd on a Monday, but I was wrong about that! There was a huge crowd, but lots of books left. I managed to keep myself reined in and only bought about 18 books, spending about $20. On the third day the crowd was even bigger. This was bag day, and each bag of books cost $5, regardless of the size of the bag. They were handing out plastic grocery bags, but I used one of my OCLC plastic tote bags (if you're a librarian you probably know what I mean), and I picked out another 12 or so books.  I have so much fiction at home that I tried to avoid the fiction and literature tables this year. I ended up buying a lot of history, memoir, and self-help (financial advice, especially). Even so, I'm trying to cut back on my book buying and catch up on all of the books that I have at home and haven't read yet, so I didn't buy nearly as many books at the book sale that I usually do. Altogether I bought 34 books for about $32; you can't beat that!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Simplify Your Work Life, by Elaine St. James

Elaine St. James. Simplify Your Work Life: Ways to Change the Way You Work So You Have More Time to Live. New York: Hyperion, 2001. 296 pages. ISBN 0786866837.

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for self-help books, especially those that provide suggestions for getting better organized, getting rid of clutter, saving time, and stopping procrastination. Well over ten years ago I read two of Elaine St. James’ early books: Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things that Really Matter, and Inner Simplicity: 100 Ways to Regain Peace and Nourish Your Soul. I found both books really helpful, but the first one especially so. It gave me lots of ideas for simplifying my life, many of which I have applied over and over. I kept them for years and read both books several times over. Eventually, in an attempt to cut back on my book collection I gave both books away, although I continue to apply many of the concepts.

This past weekend I attended the annual AAUW book sale in State College (over 400,000 used books for sale in one weekend), and found this book on simplifying your work life. It's a quick read with 85 short chapters organized into seven sections:
  1. Cutting back on the amount of time you work
  2. Learning to seize time
  3. Being more productive
  4. Being more effective with people
  5. Being more efficient with your money
  6. Changing the way you work
  7. Changing the way you think about work
If you're a productivity and self-help junkie like I am, you might not find a lot new in these pages, but if you haven't read much along these lines, you will find this book very helpful. I found many of the suggestions useful, and agree with much of what she writes about productivity, time management, financial management, and dealing with people. I've observed too many administrators who fill up their calendars with meetings, lunches, coffees, etc., and wonder why they can't get anything done. Anyone who wonders why they don't have enough time to get their work done would do well to read this book!

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 2011. 297 pages. ISBN 9780525423041.

Duncan Dorfman learns that he has a "power" early on in this fun tale about a middle-school grader who's trying to fit in at a new school. Duncan can read text through his fingertips, and while he tries to keep it a secret at first, he decides to reveal his power at school as a way to make himself stand out. He soon draws the attention of the school's scrabble whiz, Carl, who begins to groom him as a scrabble partner thinking that Duncan's skills and power can help them win the Youth Scrabble Tournament.

Duncan has to make a lot of difficult decisions, but is willing to do just about anything to go to the tournament with Carl. Carl's mother pays for the trip and asks Duncan to pay her back by serving as a model in a cigarette advertising campaign. Carl goes along with this, but soon his conscience starts to bother him and he wonders if he's doing the right thing. He decides to try to win the tournament without using his power, telling Carl that he'll use it only when it's absolutely necessary. But can he bring himself to cheat?

This is a well-written and enjoyable exploration of moral quandaries for middle-school aged children. I recommend it for adults who enjoy children's literature as well.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Echo, by Minette Walters

Minette Walters. The Echo. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1997. 338 pages. ISBN 0399142517.

Minette Walters is a British author of mystery novels. In The Echo she brings together a wide array of characters whose lives have intersected through murder and other crimes for decades. It begins, however, not with a murder, but with a suicide. Billy Blake has died of starvation in a woman's garage, although plenty of food was within reach. Michael Deacon begins to investigate the story, hoping to bring some meaning to the plight of the homeless. His research brings to light the years' old disappearance of two men, one after his wife's suicide and the other after allegedly embezzling 10 million pounds. He questions Amanda Powell, who found Billy, and he befriends a homeless teenager and a colleague in his efforts to track down Billy's true identity. Through the course of his research he manages to solve several other mysteries.

I found this book to be a quick, engaging read, although the coincidences throughout the plot are very far-fetched. Nevertheless, Walters brings her main characters to life, and the dialogue is amusing. Michael is believable as the lonely reporter who will follow every lead to get his story, and the other characters are well-developed. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys detective and mystery fiction.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

S.J. Watson. Before I Go to Sleep. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 360 pages. ISBN 9780062060556.

Before I Go to Sleep tells the story of Christine, a woman who suffers from a form of amnesia in which she cannot form new memories. She's able to remember everything that happens during the course of one day, but she forgets everything overnight. Christine wakes in terror every day, not knowing who or where she is, and in fear of the man in bed beside her, who turns out to be her husband. Every day he tells her who she is and shows her pictures of them together. When Christine is contacted by a doctor who is interested in her case as a research subject, she begins to meet him in secret and keep a journal of what she learns from day to day. Every day he calls and tells her to look for her journal and read it. Each day she remembers and records more and more about herself, her history, and her husband, and eventually she realizes that her husband is lying to her about many things. Can she trust him? Where is their son, who he claims died years ago? Where is her best friend Claire, and why has she abandoned her?

Before I Go to Sleep is a thriller that kept me turning the pages until I finished. I'm impressed that this is S.J. Watson's first book; it's very polished and well-written. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys thrillers and suspense.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman. Life Sentences. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 344 pages. ISBN 9780061128899.

Laura Lippman is a seasoned author with many books to her credit. I reviewed one of them, After I'm Gone, on this blog on December 26, 2013. After I'm Gone tells about an investigation into the murder of a woman long dead, and Life Sentences pursues a similar theme. The main character is an author who is searching for the subject of her next book. Cassandra hears a radio story that reminds her of a friend from her school days whose infant son went missing many years ago. The mother refused to speak to the police, and since no body was ever found, she ended up going to jail for seven years for contempt, although everyone assumes that she killed the boy. Cassandra goes back to her hometown to try to find out what happened, and in the meantime, she raises a lot of concern amongst old friends and acquaintances who would prefer to leave sleeping dogs lie.

Set in Baltimore like most of Lippman's books, Life Sentences also explores the racial tensions that exist in urban schools in which friendships across racial lines can be difficult to maintain. The writing is very good, and Lippman manages to maintain the suspense throughout the book. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys detective and mystery fiction.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Guardian of the Dawn, by Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler. Guardian of the Dawn. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks/Bantam Dell/Random House, 2005. 403 pages. ISBN 9780385338813.

I remembered Zimler's The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon as a fascinating work of historical fiction, so when I came across Guardian of the Dawn I hoped for and expected a work of similar quality, and I wasn't disappointed.

Guardian of the Dawn tells the story of Tiago Zarco, a young man who has been imprisoned by the Inquisition in Portuguese India for being a relapsed Christian. In fact, Zarco had no idea that his grandfather had been forced to convert to Christianity, thereby making all of his descendants Christians in the eyes of the Portuguese religious authorities. The story begins with Tiago in prison, and is told through flashbacks that represent Tiago's search through his history trying to find out who might have betrayed his family. He considers the possibilities, including his aunt and uncle, who have converted to Catholicism; his adopted cousin Wadi whose motives he has long questioned; and his sister Sofia, who has fallen in love with Wadi.

I liked everything about this book, from the excellent writing to its depiction of the atrocious historical period that it describes in great detail. I found it impossible to put down as I followed Tiago's story through his interrogation, imprisonment, release, and then search for revenge. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell. The Troubled Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 367 pages. ISBN 9780307593498.

The Troubled Man is the last book in the popular Swedish author Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series. Wallander is a police officer in a small Swedish town, and he lives in a cottage on the coast. His daughter is also a police officer, and when she becomes pregnant, Wallander meets her future in-laws, Hakan and Louise, and begins to socialize with them on occasion. At one such event, Hakan tells Wallander about a situation that has bothered him for many years, in which a Soviet submarine was located in Sweden's territorial waters, but was then allowed to escape. Hakan has suspected for years that there was a conspiracy within the high ranks of Swedish politics that enabled the Soviet sub to get away, and has been investigating it informally ever since.

When Hakan disappears not long after his party, Wallander's daughter asks him to help investigate Hakan's disappearance. The situation becomes even more mysterious when Louise disappears months later, and is subsequently found dead, an apparent suicide. Wallander continues to follow the trail of clues until he tracks down and solves the mystery surrounding Hakan, Louise, and the activities of both the Soviet and American militaries during the cold-war era.

I found the story and plotting of The Troubled Man to be a little flat. Not having read any of Mankell's other books I don't know if this is his normal style or whether it's due to the translation. The Wallander character is perennially depressed, and he makes bad decisions and drinks too much throughout the book. I found him particularly hard to empathize with. Nevertheless, I would give the author another chance; perhaps I'll read one of his stand-alone novels, such as The Man from Beijing, or an earlier Wallander book.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Invisible Murder, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis. Invisible Murder. New York: Soho Crime, 2012. 340 pages. ISBN 9781616951702.

Following up on their debut thriller, The Boy in the Suitcase, reviewed on this blog on February 25, 2014, Kaaberbol and Friis continued their story of nurse Nina Borg. Having promised her husband that she would put her own family above the needs of the refugees and destitute immigrants that she regularly aids through a volunteer organization, Nina refuses to help when her fellow volunteer calls her for help with a Roma immigrant who has fallen ill. When Peter, the doctor-volunteer who asked her for help falls ill himself, Nina breaks her promise to her husband and comes to Peter's aid. Nina tries to find the sick Roma immigrant, but is unable to locate him, finding instead a whole group of Roma immigrants who have fallen prey to the same illness.

In the meantime, both Hungarian and Danish police are following the trail of what appears to be terrorists planning an attack in Denmark. As they close in on the suspected terrorist, Nina finds herself at the center of a complicated plot involving both Muslim and Roma immigrants. Always trying to do the right thing for those who are down and out, Nina puts her own family and life in jeopardy.

Invisible Murder is an entirely believable exploration of many complex forces in modern society. The characters are well-developed and the suspense runs high throughout the book. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys thrillers.