Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fruits Basket, Ultimate Edition, v.1-2, by Natsuki Takaya

Natsuki Takaya. Fruits Basket, Ultimate Edition, v. 1-2 (in one volume). Los Angeles: TOKYOPOP, 2007. Unnumbered. ISBN 9781427806895.

While I've read a handful of graphic novels and comics (Maus 1 and 2, Persepolis, Fun Home, The Umbrella Academy, and a few others), I haven't dipped very much into Japanese manga (Barefoot Gen is the only title that I can think of). A few years ago I was given a copy of Fruits Basket, volumes 1 and 2, bound together in its first English translation and published by TOKYOPOP. Immensely popular in Japan, Fruits Basket is an example of what's called shojo manga; that is, manga that's written for young girls between the ages of 10 and 18, and often addressing family dynamics and other relationships.

Fruits Basket tells the story of Tohru Honda, a young girl who has been recently orphaned. She was living with her grandfather, but when he decides to move in with another relative while his home's being renovated, Tohru decides to live on her own in a tent. She attends a good high school, but also takes a job to make ends meet. One day she meets up with the family that owns the land where she's set up her tent. They're three young men, one of whom she knows from school, who live together in a secluded house. They offer to let her live with them during her grandfather's renovation project if she takes care of the house and kitchen.

As Tohru becomes a fixture in their home, she brings order into their chaos, and they become the family that she no longer has. But as she gets to know them she learns that they have a secret: when they're hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they turn into an animal in the Chinese Zodiak. Yuki turns into a rat, while Shigure turns into a dog. Outsider Kyo turns into a cat, and resents that there's no cat in the Zodiac. Will Tohru be able to stay with her new family? Will she keep their secret? This is the plot of the first volume; the second takes readers further into the extended family and we meet other members and their alternate shapes.

I found these first two volumes of Fruits Basket utterly charming. So much so that I'm really curious about how the story develops beyond volume 2, but I'm not sure I want to delve into further volumes, since they go up to volume 23 so far! Either way, this story has a lot to recommend it. The characters are interesting and amusing; the themes are perhaps typical for a YA book, but there's nothing wrong with that since teen issues are perennial. The artwork is really good; I particularly liked her drawings of animal figures. I recommend this to anyone who likes Japanese manga in this genre.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick. Wonderstruck. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. 637 pages. ISBN 9780545027892.

I read Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret a few years ago and loved the way Mr. Selznick combined both written and drawn storytelling. His newer book, Wonderstruck, is no less impressive. It tells the story of Ben, a young boy whose mother was killed in an accident a few months ago. He's living with his aunt, uncle, and two cousins when he is hurt in an accident. Either permanently or temporarily (we're not sure) made deaf by a lightning strike, Ben takes off for New York City where he hopes to find his father. His only clue is a book, Wonderstruck, with a bookmark from a bookstore on the Upper West Side, but when he gets there he finds the store has long been closed. Despondent, he sneaks into the American Museum of Natural History where he befriends another young boy, Jamie, whose father works at the museum.

While Mr. Selznick tells Ben's story through short prose passages of just a few pages each, he intersperses Ben's story with Rose's, which he tells solely through black and white pencil drawings. While Ben's story is set in 1977, Rose's is set in 1927. She's also deaf, and lives a lonely existence in Hoboken with an absentee mother (a famous actress). One day Rose takes off to try to find her mother at a theater in the city. Angry, her mother is ready to send her home, but Rose runs off and hides in the same museum that Ben hides in 50 years later. She's found there by her older brother Walter, who works at the museum. Walter takes her to his home and gives her a copy of Wonderstruck.

Near the end of the book Ben's and Rose's stories converge and we learn about how the two are connected. The story continues to be told in alternating sections of prose and pencil drawings.

This book has mystery and suspense, and a great deal of heart. The drawings are intricate and really wonderful. It's amazing how much of the story can be told just through drawings. I really loved this book; I like the characters, the plot, the writing, and the illustrations. Intended for ages 9 and up, I think this would be of interest to anyone who likes good storytelling and illustrated books.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nothing Left Over, by Toinette Lippe

Toinette Lippe. Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002. 257 pages. ISBN 158542160X.

I found Toinette Lippe's book, Nothing Left Over, at the 2014 AAUW State College Branch Annual Used Book Sale. Its simple yet attractive book jacket appealed to me, and the blurb promised a thoughtful exploration of what it means to have just enough.

I'm always interested in ways to simplify my life and manage it more effectively, so I picked up this book thinking that I might find some good advice for doing so. While the book didn't provide exactly what I was looking for, I nevertheless enjoyed Ms. Lippe's memoir about how she came to be an editor for a major publisher in New York City, and her personal philosophy of minimalism (although she doesn't use that term in her book).

Ms. Lippe spent many years working at publishing houses such as Andre Deutsch, Simon and Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf. While there she founded her own imprint, called Bell Tower Books, which published books about spirituality. Ms. Lippe's deep interest in many spiritual traditions is reflected in her ruminations in Nothing Left Over. She writes about being present and focusing on what you're doing. She advises readers to be open to ideas and to try to say "yes" rather than "no" to new experiences and opportunities.

Ms. Lippe has retired from the publishing business, but maintains a website through which she sells not only her artwork (she's a painter), but also newer editions of both Nothing Left Over and her second book, Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing. While I haven't read the second book, I would recommend Nothing Left Over to anyone who enjoys books about simplicity and living a thoughtful or spiritual life.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014. 258 pages. ISBN 9781616203214.

My book club selected The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for its November read, and it was a hit with all of us. We picked it out from a list: National Reading Group Month: Great Group Reads, which turned out to be absolutely correct in this case.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry tells the story of A.J. Fikry, a bookstore owner who lost his wife to a car accident a year ago. He's letting the bookstore's management crumble and is slowly drinking himself to death. One night he passes out at the kitchen table, not an unusual occurrence for him, but finds himself tucked into bed when he wakes up in the morning. His kitchen's been tidied up, and his rare and valuable edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane is missing. A.J. reports the theft, but the trail is cold. Not long after, he returns from a jog and finds that someone has left a two-year old child in his store. He decides to foster the girl, Maya, and ultimately adopts her.

This short novel covers the next 16 years as Maya develops into a young woman and changes A.J.'s life for the better. Will A.J. ever find love again? Will A.J.'s sister-in-law make peace with her cheating husband? Whatever happened to A.J.'s copy of Tamerlane?

I really enjoyed this book. Gabrielle Zevin's writing is lucid and amusing. There are no wasted words, and she manages to find the humor in even dire situations. The characters are warm and caring. I particularly liked the Police Chief, Lambiase, and his Chief's Choice Book Club. A.J.'s love interest and later wife, Amy, is an eccentric but lovable character. My favorite character, however, is Maya, the young girl who changed everything for A.J.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Three Books on Personal Finance

Emily Chantiri. The Savvy Girl's Guide to Money: Take Charge and Get the Life You Want. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2007. 227 pages. ISBN 9781592237449.

Suze Orman. Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work, 2nd ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. 177 pages. ISBN 9780307347305.

Suze Orman. Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2007. 253 pages. ISBN 9780385519311.

Like the three books on Feng Shui that I reviewed recently, I found these three books on personal finance at the annual AAUW used book sale held in State College, PA this past May. I found all three books to offer useful advice for anyone trying to get their financial affairs in order.

The first book, Emily Chantiri's The Savvy Girl's Guide to Money: Take Charge and Get the Life You Want is clearly aimed at younger women in their 20s and early 30s. It offers good advice for figuring out where your money is going right now, and getting on track to spending wisely, saving, and planning for retirement. It's very readable and illustrates each chapter with numerous anecdotes about real women facing the same challenges as the readers might. For younger women, the most useful parts of the book are the chapters on budgeting and the use of credit cards. Least useful is the chapter on your personal money characteristics based on your horoscope.

Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work is intended to be a companion to her The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, which I did not buy at the AAUW book sale and which I haven't read. However, she states in the preface that it is "a crash course" to that book, and can be read independently (p. v). It's really a workbook, and readers are supposed to complete all exercises before advancing to the next section. Of course, I didn't do that myself; I just wanted to plow through the book the first time, but I found it to have a lot of good advice, so I do plan to go back and work my way through the exercises. Like similar books, Ms. Orman discusses how you spend your money, how to get out of debt, and how to begin thinking about investing and retirement. She also discusses how you would start making a will or a revocable living trust, if you don't have one already, and how to think about life insurance. One of the chapters that I found most interesting had to do with being respectful of yourself and your money. Throughout the book she states a number of "laws." For example, the "Second Law of Financial Freedom" is "Power and Respect Attract Money, Powerlessness and Disrespect Repel Money" (p. 83). In this chapter she discusses spending, debt, and the shame associated with it. I believe that anyone who worked their way through this book would find themselves in much better financial shape than before.

In Women & Money, Ms. Orman covers much of the same ground as in the Financial Guidebook, but with a focus on women's issues. It's organized a little differently, with five chapters representing what's intended to be a five month-long exercise in getting your affairs in order. Again, I found this book very useful. Ms. Orman discusses budgeting, debt, investing, life insurance, retirement planning, wills, and more. Although the content is very similar to her other books, what makes this interesting is the perspective in women and their roles in the workforce and family.

All three of these books offer useful advice for anyone trying to get their finances in better shape. Even if readers just adopted a few of the suggestions in any of these books they would be better off than before. Of the three, I liked the approach taken in Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work the best. The simple assignments that Ms. Orman prescribes would help the reader move forward to a better financial position.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014. 213 pages. ISBN 9781607747307.

I am completely charmed by this guide to organizing your home. Marie Kondo's recommendations for getting rid of excess clothing, books, papers, and other possessions are not for the faint of heart. She recommends going through your whole house, one category of item at a time, and discarding what's no longer needed. For example, if you were to start with clothing, you would bring all your clothing to one room and pile it all on the floor. You would then go through your clothing one item at a time, physically handling every item, and choosing what to keep. She emphasizes that you are to choose what to keep, not choose what to discard; the distinction makes it easier to decide.

After you have gone through your whole house, discarding what you can, you can turn your attention to how you want to organize what's left. She recommends organizing by category, and keeping like things together. For example, all your books should be together, all your clothing and shoes in one place. She makes the point that many people keep things in certain places because they're handy when needed. But what helps keep your house tidy is having things in places that make it easy for them to be put away. Ms. Kondo gives a lot of good advice about low-cost or no-cost storage solutions, and recommends against purchasing expensive storage systems. She shares innovative ways of folding and storing shirts, sweaters, socks, and other clothing that makes them easier to find when needed.

One of the things that I found charming about this book is Ms. Kondo's attitude toward inanimate objects. She believes that objects care about how they're treated and we should treat them with respect and care. Objects that are treated considerably will hold up much longer and serve us well. For example, Ms. Kondo empties her purse every evening when she returns home, thanking each object as she takes it out of her purse and puts it into its spot for the night. This allows her purse to relax and rest overnight before being used again. While this sounds a little eccentric, her point is well taken: if we treat everything in our environment with respect and thoughtfulness, they will serve us better.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to make their world a little more organized, peaceful, and happy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Three books on Feng Shui

Darrin Zeer. Office Feng Shui: Creating Harmony in Your Work Space. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 102 pages. ISBN 9780811842150.

Belinda Henwood. Feng Shui: How to Create Harmony and Balance in Your Living and Working Environment. Pownal, Vermont: Storey Books, 1999. 79 pages. ISBN 1580171702.

Denise Linn. Feng Shui for the Soul: How to Create a Harmonious Environment That Will Nurture and Sustain You. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 1999. 256 pages. ISBN 9781561707317.

OK, I admit it; I'm on a bit of a streak. I found these three titles at the AAUW book sale in State College in May 2014, when I visited with my sister and spent parts of three days picking out fun books to read. I had read a few other books on feng shui when I worked at my previous institution, and thought it would be fun to brush up a little bit on feng shui principles now. We're almost finished with the interior renovations to our house and I was looking for aesthetic and organizational suggestions to make improvements on how we've arranged everything. I'm also always looking for ideas for how to organize my office better.

I found the Zeer book, Office Feng Shui, to have the most practical suggestions for organization and other improvements to my work area. Zeer offers many ideas for reducing clutter, weeding files, and arranging your work space. There are a lot of good suggestions there, although most of them aren't new for readers who do a lot of reading in this area. Nevertheless, the book is a fun way to assess your office and see what improvements can be made that will make you more organized and will also make the environment more peaceful.

The Henwood book, Feng Shui, offers many suggestions for arranging your home to be peaceful and harmonious. Many of the suggestions make sense, such as not placing the head of your bed near the bedroom door, because this will cause you to be restless. That makes perfect sense, especially in a home with multiple adults or children in it. Other suggestions are just outrageous, such as placing a small mirror near the toilet so that energy and money don't go flowing down the toilet every time it's flushed. Nevertheless, this is a very short book with many illustrations, and may be interesting to folks who want to learn more about feng shui concepts.

The third book that I read, Feng Shui for the Soul, by Denise Linn, was the most substantive. Whereas the other two books were very short and heavily illustrated, this book is primarily text, although there are a few illustrations. The book is organized into three parts: "A Home for the Soul," "Awakening Natural Forces," and "Medicine Wheel Feng Shui." I only fully read the first part of the book; the latter two I just skimmed and selectively read a few sections. I found the first part of the book compelling, although it suffers from some of the same outrageousness as the previous book. The most important thing that I gleaned from this book is that in order to have a peaceful home, you have to love it; treat it well; keep it clean and clutter free; think about the messages you send with your décor, color schemes, and how you place your photographs and other items. There's a lot of good advice in this section of the book, and anyone interested in feng shui principles would find this useful. The other two sections of the book delve into areas that I just don't buy into, but others might enjoy them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt. Neverhome. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 247 pages. ISBN 9780316370134

I really loved the first few pages, but as I read along I enjoyed the book less and less. It came with great blurbs by Paul Auster and Kevin Powers, so I had high hopes for this novel, but it just didn't feel right to me. The book is about a woman, Constance, who leaves home to fight for the union cause in the civil war. She takes on another name, Ash, and leaves her husband behind; being severely short sighted, he wouldn't have been able to shoot. She describes her experiences in battle, when she and two fellow soldiers are kidnapped and how they make their escape, her eventual exposure as a woman, and the accusations against her as a spy. Ash is locked up in an insane asylum, but eventually escapes and makes her way home.

I found the depiction of war to be as compelling as The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, a book that I read in junior high school and then again later in college. The questions that I had throughout the book, such as why Ash felt that she had to go to war are never answered. The ending comes as a shock and is so abrupt that it just left me hanging, with no resolution and no answers about what really happened to her and why. I am very dissatisfied with this ending! The best part of this book is the depiction of war and its horrors; that alone makes Neverhome worth reading.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. New York: Crown Business, 2014. 260 pages. ISBN 9780804137386.

As I've written on the blog before, I enjoy books that are intended to help me manage better, whether it's managing my home, my time, my things, or my job. Greg McKeown's Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less provides a useful way of looking at the commitments that we take on, whether at home or at work. By trying to be all things to all people we end up weakening and diluting our own contributions. McKeown shares techniques to help readers say no to requests that would divert us from our main purpose, whether that's in life or at work.

The book is organized into four sections, addressing the core mind-set of people that McKeown calls "Essentialists," how to discern the trivial from the vital, strategies for cutting out the trivial, and ways to make this new approach more effortless. It will provide readers with the strategies and tools they need to identify what's most important to them and focus on those things only.

There are two minor elements of the book that I was less fond of. First of all, McKeown uses a monstrous size font when he's trying to make a significant point, to the extent that a short sentence takes up half a page. I found this unnecessary and slightly obnoxious. Secondly, during the transition from one section to another, black paper with white print is used. I suppose it's intended to make the book snazzy and hip, but I didn't like reading those pages; it was distracting and harder to read than the traditional black on white print. But these are minor points.

Overall I found the book readable and a useful contribution to the self-management literature. I would recommend it to those who want to make more effective and meaningful contributions to work or other areas of their lives.

Note: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Three Movie Reviews: Kill Your Darlings, Wadjda, and For No Good Reason

I haven't been watching nearly as many movies as I used to this past year or two, so I was really happy to be able to catch three movies recently that I really enjoyed. I got all of these from Netflix on DVD; I still have a DVD plan (along with the streaming option) because lots of movies are still unavailable through streaming.

The first movie in the queue was Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas and starring Daniel Radcliffe. It tells the story of young Allen Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia University when he met and befriended Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. His relationship with Lucien was complicated by the presence of David Kammerer, an older man who was obsessed with Lucien. When David is murdered and Lucien accused of the crime, Allen has to decide whether and how to help his friend defend himself.

Rotten Tomatoes' critics gave Kill Your Darlings a 76% rating, and the audience rating was even lower, at 60%. However, I really enjoyed the movie. The acting was very good, and I appreciated seeing how these fascinating characters were portrayed on the screen. I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in the early days of the Beat Generation.

Wadjda was the second movie that I watched recently. Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, it tells the story of a young girl (Wadjda) who yearns to buy a bicycle so that she can ride with and race alongside her friend. She makes and sells macramé bracelets and runs errands to save money for the bicycle, but it's taking too much time for her to reach her goal. When she finds out that the first prize for the annual Koran contest would be enough to purchase the bike, she joins the religious club and begins studying the Koran. The movie shows the challenges she faces, including the school principal who doesn't trust her; Wadjda's mother, who discourages her from wanting a bike; and others who are skeptical about the prospect of a girl riding a bike. Her mother goes so far as to tell her that if she rides a bike she won't be able to have children.

Wadjda was a popular movie according to Rotten Tomatoes, with 99% of the critics and 89% of the audiences liking it. I agree with their assessment; I really enjoyed the movie and appreciated seeing the Saudi Arabian culture and setting (although seeing the injustices against women made me angry). The movie is serious, yet funny and charming. I would recommend this movie to anyone who likes foreign films (i.e., subtitles) and films about someone overcoming adversity.

The third film that I watched recently was a documentary called For No Good Reason. Directed by Charlie Paul, it tells the story of Ralph Steadman's work, primarily alongside Hunter S. Thompson. Johnny Depp visits Steadman at his home and studio, and Steadman talks about his work and shows Depp (and us viewers) how he goes about his creative process. Steadman began working with Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s when he accompanied him to the Kentucky Derby. Thompson was developing a style of journalism now known as gonzo journalism, in which the writer immerses himself in the story to the extent the he becomes part of the story. Their project resulted in a story published in Rolling Stone called "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," and resulted in a real partnership between the two that lasted many years.

For No Good Reason fared poorly on Rotten Tomatoes, getting only a 62% approval rating from critics and 57% by viewers. I disagree with their low ratings, finding that the documentary was very revealing about Steadman's creative process and how he came to participate in some fascinating cultural events. When I was a college student in the early 1980s, Hunter S. Thompson was a staple of my recreational reading activities. I started with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and moved on to Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (which I didn't finish; I guess I ran out of steam). Having been so interested in their collaborations in the past, I found the documentary interesting and thought-provoking. However, it might have been a stronger documentary if it had been a more traditional documentary about Steadman and his career. It's basically a collection of anecdotes, but it just left me wanting more. And yet I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Less Doing, More Living, by Ari Meisel

Ari Meisel. Less Doing, More Living: Make Everything in Life Easier. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. 123 pages. ISBN 9780399168529.

Less Doing, More Living is a brief compilation of a bunch of time saving strategies that are intended to make the reader's life easier to manage. It's organized into nine chapters that recommend creating an "external brain," customization, choosing your own workweek, stop running errands, batching your work, and more. It focuses not only on your paid work, but also wellness and your finances.

This is a quick read, and has the feel of a compilation of blog posts. It feels a little like The Four Hour Work Week-Lite, and Meisel does in fact mention Timothy Ferriss' book. Many of the recommendations include the use of apps or other software that seem at first glance like they would be more of a pain to start using than they're worth, but that may be a prejudice on my part. And not fair, since I haven't actually given them a try yet. Meisel, like Ferriss, is a strong proponent of outsourcing your work. This appeals to me to a certain extent, as I've gone from a job in which I had someone to help me with my travel, calendar, and other critical activities to a job in which I have to manage all of those detailed projects myself.

Overall, Less Doing, More Living has a lot of tips that readers might find useful. As I re-read the book and try to implement some of the recommendations, I may continue to write about it on this blog.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Amy Rowland. The Transcriptionist. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2014. 246 pages. ISBN 9781616202545.

First time novelist Amy Rowland has written a compelling book about a woman's loneliness and lack of a sense of self. Transcriptionist Lena is afraid that she's becoming subsumed by her job, transcribing news stories for a prominent newspaper. When she sees a story about a blind woman who committed suicide by climbing into the lion's den at the zoo, she realizes that she had met the woman on the bus only a few days prior. Feeling a connection to the dead woman, Arlene, Lena begins to investigate the woman and her death, following leads and misrepresenting herself to Arlene's family as a newspaper reporter. As Lena learns more about Arlene, she comes closer to learning the truth about herself, and finally gains the strength to break from her circumstances and make a change in her own life.

I found the writing in this novel to be very good. The characters are interesting, although not all of them are likable. Lena's obsession is curious, but it shows how one incident can cause someone to rethink her whole life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Fistful of Collars, by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn. A Fistful of Collars. New York: Atria Books, 2012. 309 pages. ISBN 9781451665161.

A Fistful of Collars is another winner in this series of detective stories starring Bernie (a human detective) and his canine partner, Chet. The books are narrated by Chet, who is a little bit unreliable given how easily he's distracted by food, flies, cats, and many other things. One of the charming plot devices that Quinn uses is to have Chet describe what's going on with Bernie and another character, get distracted, and miss a key part of the discussion. This allows the author to keep some details secret until the end of the story, when all (or at least, most) is revealed.

I really enjoy Quinn's writing. His depiction of dog behavior is spot on. His cluelessness about Chet's intelligence is amusing, as he totally misunderstands what Chet's trying to show him again and again. But things always seem to turn out right in the end. I would recommend these books to anyone who enjoys a good mystery or loves dogs.

Other books in the series include:
  • Dog on It
  • Thereby Hangs a Tail
  • To Fetch a Thief
  • The Dog Who Knew Too Much
  • A Cat Was Involved
  • The Sound and the Furry
  • Paw and Order
I've read Thereby Hangs a Tail and To Fetch a Thief, and found them just as enjoyable as this book. I especially enjoy the clever and slightly corny titles.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Mutts Diaries, by Patrick McDonnell

Patrick McDonnell. The Mutts Diaries. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014. 222 pages. ISBN 9781449458706.

I've always been a big fan of newspaper comic strips, and Mutts is absolutely one of my favorites. Patrick McDonnell has been a frequent visitor to the BEA convention, and I was lucky enough to get an uncorrected proof of The Mutts Diaries. This book is geared towards middle-grade readers, and I found it charming and funny. It focuses on all of the recurring characters in the comic strip, with separate sections dedicated to Mooch (the cat), Earl (the dog), Sour Puss (a cat, obviously), Chickpea and Chickpea's brother (kitten twins), Crabby (the crab), Guard Dog, Bip and Bop (two squirrels), and Shtinky (a cat). Most of the drawings are in black and white, but every few pages there's a panel in color. McDonnell returns many times to the theme of animal cruelty and neglect (for example, through the sad treatment of Guard Dog who's tied outside all the time and very lonely), and the plight of unwanted animals, such as Chickpea and Chickpea's brother, who are hoping to be adopted.

This is an excellent book for anyone who enjoys comic strips, and has the added benefit of encouraging a thoughtful approach to the humane treatment of animals.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Three books by Brad Thor

Brad Thor. Blowback. New York: Atria Books, 2005. 440 pages. ISBN 0743271157.
Brad Thor. Foreign Intelligence. New York: Atria Books, 2010. 376 pages. ISBN 9781416586593.
Brad Thor. The Athena Project. New York: Atria Books, 2010. 324 pages. ISBN 978143919255.

For a week or so during the past month I was in the mood to read thrillers, so I decided to polish off my small collection of three as-yet unread Brad Thor novels. I picked up all three books at either BEA conventions or through book review list that I belong to. Blowback is signed "To Rebecca -- Best Wishes, Brad Thor" so I definitely got that one at BEA.

Two of the books focus primarily on one of Thor's recurring characters, Scott McGrath. He's a former ATF agent who was hired to work for the U.S. President in various capacities. In Blowback, he's caught on tape pummeling a man whom he thinks is a terrorist but who turns out to be a fruit vendor. Persona non grata, he has to investigate the real terrorist to clear his own name. Foreign Influence has McGrath trying to catch a group of terrorists who bombed a bus full of young American tourists. He's assisted by a team of female operatives called the Athena Project. The team is composed of former college athletes, all very intelligent and beautiful (of course).

Both Blowback and Foreign Influence were well-written examples of their particular genre of political thriller. The third book that I read was The Athena Project, published the same year as Foreign Influence. The all-women team has been assigned to track down the arms dealer who provided the bombs that killed the American tourists in the Foreign Influence. This book felt shallower to me than the other two; perhaps Mr. Thor rushed a little too much to get both books out around the same time. Overall, though, I enjoyed all of the books and would recommend them to anyone who likes this genre.

In other news:

I watched my first TED Talk today: Jeff Iliff's One More Reason to Get a Good Night's Sleep. Those who know me probably know that I'm an early to bed, early to rise kind of person, so they won't be surprised that I found Mr. Iliff's talk completely convincing. He reported on brain research that shows that the brain uses the time when you're sleeping to clean the brain's waste products out. The rest of the body uses the lymphatic system to do this, but the brain doesn't have enough room. Instead, it uses the cerebrospinal fluid to clean out waste products, but again, this only happens when you're sleeping. He posits that there might be a connection between Alzheimer's disease and the inability to sleep well, since Alzheimer's is characterized by a buildup of such waste products. Again, it convinced me!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh. Faith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. 318 pages. ISBN 9780060755812.

After reading and completely enjoying Jennifer Haigh's The Condition a few years ago, I was excited that my book club selected Faith for our October read. Set during the aftermath of the child abuse scandals in the Boston Catholic Church, Faith focuses on the effects of an accusation of a priest who may, in fact, be innocent.

The book is narrated by Sheila years after her brother's death. Art was a priest who had a long and relatively happy, although perhaps lonely, career in the Boston Catholic Church. Art is Sheila's half-brother; his own father disappeared when he was young, and Art and Sheila's mother remarried when Art was a preteen. Sheila's younger brother Mike is a former police officer with a wife and two children. When Art is accused, Sheila wants to believe in his innocence, but Mike and his wife automatically believe the accusation.

Art's loneliness has led him to befriend the young daughter (Kath) of the parish housekeeper and Kath's son Aidan. He allows Aidan to spend time in his office until Kath can pick him up when she gets out of work. He also takes them on short day trips, including one trip to the beach after which Kath accuses him of inappropriately touching Aidan. Abandoned by the Church hierarchy which would prefer to settle out of court than defend him against the accusation, Art never has a chance to prove his innocence.

Faith is a wonderfully written depiction of the distances between family members and the complexities of the characters' lives. The personal dynamics are all too real and believable. It makes one wonder what would happen if someone were falsely accused. Would anyone be able to ever overcome such a disaster? In spite of the serious matter and the sad characters (no one comes off looking very good in this book), I really enjoyed reading it and found it impossible to put down.

In other news:

I had a lot of desk work to do at home today: processing junk mail, paying bills, filing stuff, and more. This is the music that I listened to while I worked:

1. NeatNeatNeat. This is a compilation CD distributed by Uncut magazine in 2002 (it's numbered 2002 07). My brother David used to buy lots of music magazines, and when they came with CDs he often gave them to me. I enjoy them since they include music and bands I would never have heard of otherwise.
2. The Best of the Moody Blues: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection.
3. Soundgarden. Badmotorfinger. This includes some great songs, such as Rusty Cage, Outshined, Jesus Christ Pose, Mind Riot, and Holy Water.
4. Stone Temple Pilots. Shangri-La Dee Da.