Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban

I occasionally pick up a book because I like the cover, and that was the case with Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban. In this case, I was shopping at the AAUW Used Book Sale in State College, PA, one of the largest such sales in the country, with close to half a million books. Often I attend the sale three or four days in a row; the first two days are full price, the third half price, and the fourth is bag day (all you can fit for $5). I'm especially vulnerable on bag day, and that's when I picked up Waxwings; at that price it doesn't hurt to take a chance on a new book or author.

Waxwings is set in Seattle in 1999-2000, at the height of the dot-com boom. Beth and Tom are a couple whose marriage is slowly disintegrating. Beth is a writer and editor working for an online real estate company; Tom is a literature professor at the University of Washington (UW). Their four-year-old son Finn figures prominently in the story of Beth and Tom's breakup, an ongoing theme being his misbehavior at preschool and his parents' disagreements about what he should eat or watch on television. Another key figure is Chick, an illegal Chinese immigrant who's trying to save enough money to pay off the debt to the men who brought him to the U.S. His path crosses Tom's when he offers to replace the roof on his Queen Anne Victorian home, using a crew of illegal Mexican immigrants.

I was unfamiliar with Mr. Raban's work before reading Waxwings. He's a travel writer and novelist with 18 books to his credit. His writing is very good and the plot drew me along as he developed several subplots. One of the subplots involved a young girl who disappeared from a trail on the same day that Tom was hiking there. After his and Beth's separation he was falling apart, not taking care of himself and smoking. His hike helped him to develop an idea for a new novel, but also put him in the place where a crime was committed, and his disheveled appearance and the fact that he was smoking, made him the most memorable character to everyone hiking that day. He quickly becomes a "person of interest," causing UW to put him on paid leave and his wife to begin to doubt him. As he struggles with this problem as well as his wife's departure and Chick's work on his house, he begins to realize that he can survive these problems and begins to make his way back into a semblance of normalcy.

This book is funny and well-written. The main characters: Tom, Beth, Finn, and Chick are well-developed and believable. Seattle and the dot-com boom around the turn of the 21st century are also very well described. The bust that follows the boom is subtly hinted at, and Beth's new financial "security" due to her stock options is clearly at risk. Not stated explicitly, her new wealthy status was certainly a factor in her decision to leave Tom. The title of the book refers to a species of birds that light upon a bush or tree and eat everything possible before moving on, paralleling the dot-com boom and its impact on Seattle. The book leaves the reader with a feeling that Tom will survive all of his crises and Chick will flourish; Beth's future is really questionable. Recommended.

Jonathan Raban. Waxwings. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. 282 pages. ISBN 0375410082.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

I've just read Anna Quindlen's first and latest novels, one right after the other. Her first novel was Object Lessons, which I mentioned briefly in this post, and her latest novel is Still Life with Bread Crumbs. It was fun reading them successively and I noted a great improvement in her writing. This latest book is much more polished than her first, although I liked that one quite a bit as well.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is about Rebecca Winter, sixty years old, who is a well-known photographer, but who has fallen on hard times. She has resorted to renting her New York apartment out so she can use the income to support her mother's retirement home fee and her own, much cheaper, rented home in a small town in upstate New York. Once there, her life takes on a slower pace than she's used to. She begins to make friends in town, and a romance blossoms with Jim Bates, who offers her a weekend job taking photographs of birds for the Wildlife Service. In the meantime, she wanders the woods surrounding her new home, taking pictures of what seem like memorial crosses that someone's been leaving all over the woods.

During the course of the year that Rebecca spends in her new home, she comes to appreciate the slower pace of her new life. She faces many challenges, including her father's death, and a misunderstanding with Jim, and she learns that she is a dog person, adopting a stray named Jack.

One of the things that I like about Anna Quindlen's writing as that she creates realistic characters. They're believable, they make and learn from their mistakes, and they're easy to root for. I have a sense when reading her books that things will always work out somehow for the characters. In that sense maybe they're a little unrealistic, but it's hard not to like that.

Anna Quindlen. Still Life with Bread Crumbs. New York: Random House, 2014. 256 pages. ISBN 9781400065752.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Playing catch-up

Somehow I got behind in my book reviews; a conference in Chicago late January and early February started off my delinquency and then it continued through most of February. A bad cold topped it off, and now I'm about eight books behind. To catch up, I'm going to just list the books here. I enjoyed all of them:

Iain Pears. The Immaculate Deception; and Death and Restoration. Art historian professor and art theft detective solve theft and murder in contemporary Rome. I read both of these during my conference in Chicago. Traveling just calls out for mysteries that can't be put down and these fit the bill.

Kimberly McCreight. Where They Found Her. The body of a newborn baby was found buried in a rural area and journalist Molly Anderson investigates, uncovering many small-town secrets that no one wants exposed. I got Where They Found Her at one of the American Association of Publisher events at the conference; Author Kimberly McCreight gave an interesting talk about becoming a writer. Her earlier book, Reconstructing Amelia, was a big success, but I haven't read it yet.

Paula Hawkins. The Girl on the Train. An alcoholic, depressed woman believes that she's seen a crime from her vantage point on a train going through her old neighborhood. No one believes her but she keeps investigating until she learns the truth. I also got The Girl on the Train at the conference, but the author got held up because of the weather (Chicago had a blizzard while we were there) so I didn't get to hear her speak.

Greg Iles. Natchez Burning. Mayor Penn Cage's father may be implicated in the suicide of his former nurse, and somehow it's connected to the activities of an offshoot of the KKK and murders that took place in the 1960s. This is a humongous book, 788 pages, but I could not put it down. It's the beginning of a trilogy and I can't wait for the others to come out. Author Greg Iles has already published more than a dozen books, and I don't know how I've missed him, but I will have to do some catching up. Excellent writer!

Elizabeth Haynes. Behind Closed Doors. Kidnapped on a European vacation when she was 15 years old, Scarlett Rainsford has turned up in a brothel in England. Where has she been all this time, and is her appearance related to recent murders in the area?

Jo Nesbo. Phantom. This is the penultimate (so far) of Nesbo's Harry Hole series, so I'm reading them all out of order. I really enjoy his writing and I love reading about Oslo. I look forward to filling in the series gaps.

Anna Quindlen. Object Lessons. I read One True Thing and Black and Blue many years ago. I've had Object Lessons on my shelf since then, but never got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. This is Quindlen's first novel, and her writing isn't as mature as her later books, but it's still worth reading.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk on How Schools Kill Creativity

Inspired by How to Deliver a TED Talk, reviewed here yesterday, I watched Sir Ken Robinson's 2006 TED Talk "How Schools Kill Creativity." As Jeremey Donovan noted, his talk was funny and inspiring. He talked about his belief that creativity has the same importance as literacy for education. He claimed that if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. We're educating children the same way all over the world, in a system that was developed to prepare kids to be part of an industrial society. Science and math are at the top, creative arts are at the bottom. He claims that intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinct, and he plugs a book he was working on at the time of the video: Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage, and Transform. If you have 20 minutes to spare, this video is inspiring.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How to Deliver a TED Talk, by Jeremey Donovan

I've been impressed with many of the TED talks that I've watched online. Standing for Technology, Education, Design, TED conferences present speakers who speak about "ideas worth spreading." Jeremy Donovan has been involved with TED and TEDx conferences for years and in this book provides guidance for readers who want to become better speakers. Whether you will ever give a talk at a TED or TEDx conference, the tips provided in this book will help you become a better speaker.

The bulk of the book focuses on content, delivery, and design. Donovan illustrates his points with many examples from famous TED talks. Readers can spend hours just looking up and watching many of the talks that he references. He uses charts to break down the main points of many of the talks that he cites, demonstrating how the talks are structured and supported by the speakers' main points. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to become a better speaker.

Jeremey Donovan. How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World's Most Inspiring Presentations. New York: McGraw Hill, 2014. 229 pages. ISBN 9780071830598.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

George Washington's Secret Six, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

This is an easy-to-read book about a group of spies who delivered messages to George Washington about British troop movements and other details of the Revolutionary War. While I enjoyed the story, I found the writing to be scattered and unfocused. With better framing, and a more chronological approach, this could have been a much better book.

I found that the story about the spies was interesting and definitely worthy of a book. It's clear from Amazon reviews that it's fairly popular, so maybe the issues I have with it aren't widely held. But I will list them here:

1) There are no footnotes or endnotes citing where any of his information came from.
2) The writing is poor; even his co-author couldn't help with the awkward prose.
3) The narrative is confusing and jumps all over the place.
4) Every time George Washington is mentioned he's in a different place. First they're delivering information to him in Connecticut, then New Jersey. No information is provided about the larger context of the war and why or how he was in each locale.
5) The author has supplied dialog for many of the characters. He claims they're all based on his written sources, but since those sources aren't cited, there's no way to tell. The dialog supplied is very stiff and awkward sounding.

This would have made a much better historical novel. Perhaps Kilmeade should have just taken the leap and written a novel, supplying all of the dialog he wanted and not worrying about getting the facts exactly right or citing his sources. The book includes 8 pages of illustrations, a short list of sources, and an index.

Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution. New York: Sentinel, 2013. 252 pages. ISBN 9781595231109.