Monday, July 8, 2013

The Power of Words

In elementary school, the principal often used to begin short reprimand speeches with the words, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will hurt me even more."  True, and at a time of year that it's even more important to watch your words, I offer a novel that gives words a tremendous amount of power.  Lexicon, by Max Barry, is built on an astounding premise:  words have power, intrinsically, and can be wielded as weapons.  Parts of the book resemble Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but Lexicon is nowhere near as linear, which can be a bit confusing.  This book makes an impression, and is a page turner.  However,  I was a little disappointed in some of the characters, many of whom seem one-dimensional.  Emily, the main character, is fairly well developed, but I would have liked to see more of Eliot's personality, and the "outlier" they all seek seems more like a paper doll than a person.

A new discovery of mine is Fred Vargas, a French mystery writer.  The Ghost Riders of Ordobec is the latest of his but the first I have read, and it is very entertaining indeed. The translation is so good that the reader wouldn't suspect it wasn't originally written in English.  I will definitely be looking for more of his writing.

Terry Pratchett is always a lot of fun, if you're the type who likes zany fantasy, and I often find myself rereading favorites like Monstrous Regiment and The Thief of Time.  Now, together with Stephen Baxter, Pratchett has written two new books: The Long Earth, and The Long War.  Companion novels, they really must be read in order to be understood.  I enjoyed them, and the plot is interesting, but the reader only occasionally senses the effervescence of Pratchett floating above the text.  The theme of the book, I understand, does not exactly lend itself to the hijinks of the Discworld, but I missed it all the same.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Some Summer Reading

Now that summer is officially here, our thoughts naturally turn to...all the reading we can get done on vacation!  (It's lovely to be a teacher.  In the summer, that is).  Below I'll list some good vacation reading options, suitable for the beach, the plane, or your back porch.  If you're traveling, I recommend an e-reader of some sort so you don't overwhelm your luggage.

First:  The Golem and The Jinni, by Helene Wecker.  I did not think I would enjoy this book, but it turned out to be a real page turner.  It was a little unexpected, and I look forward to seeing more books from this author.  Another good read was The Tin Horse, by Janice Steinberg.  The historical context makes this a very engaging book that doesn't overwhelm with detail.  Readers of The Glass Castle will enjoy Jeannette Walls' latest fiction offering, The Silver Star.  It's worth reading until the very end; just when you want to cry she pulls out a completely chuckle-worthy moment.  I also loved Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.  The premise makes the reader a bit dizzy at first -- the protagonist gets to live her life over and over until she gets it right.  Surprisingly easy to get into, though.

If you're looking for some ultra-light chick lit style reading, The Last Original Wife should do the job.  By Dorothea Benton Frank, it's the story of a woman who is the last original first wife in her social circle.  All her friends have been replaced by young trophy wives, with whom she is now expected to socialize.  It's fluffy reading and so sweet.  I'll Be Seeing You, by Hayes and Nyhan, is an epistolary novel.  For the uninitiated, that means written in the form of letters.  Set during World War II, it's a book about friendship that manages to avoid being completely treacly. I also enjoyed The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton.  It was a little predictable, but gripping enough to keep the pages turning.  Another page-turner is The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig.  The switching back and forth between time periods was a little confusing, but it maintains interest until the finish.  Aficionados of Elizabeth Berg will enjoy her latest, Tapestry of Fortunes, which is pretty much like all her other books.

Now for mysteries:  Again, I will grab the opportunity to encourage readers to try Donna Leon's mysteries, set in Venice.  These are books I never tire of rereading.  The latest, The Golden Egg, was excellent.  Another recent discovery is Kerry Greenwood.  She has written two separate series, one featuring Phryne Fisher and the other Corinna Chapman.  I prefer the Phryne Fisher series, which I recommend reading in order, but the Corinna Chapman stories are quite fun as well.  Lisdsey Davis is another well-known mystery writer, but I never really loved her Didius Falco novels.  She has just begun a new series featuring Flavia Alba, in The Ides of April, which is nicely done but a little anachronistic for my taste.

If you'd like to feel virtuous over vacation, and read something semi-educational, here are some nonfiction offerings.  The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, is far more readable than it sounds.  If you want to know why you do what you do all the time, try this book.  (Hat tip:  D. G. S.) For anyone who has been interested, frustrated, or infested by urban wildlife:  Nature Wars, by Jim Sterba, does a very good job of putting it all into context.
Michael Pollan has published a new book, Cooked, about the art of cooking food.  It isn't as gripping as his previous food books, but it still manages to be an easy read with a takeaway lesson.  Last, but definitely not least:  The Myth of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  (Thanks again, D). This book is seriously thought provoking but manages to avoid being critical and scolding in its nature. It skirts the border of the self-help genre, but should certainly serve as food for thought for anyone who has looked for happiness in the wrong places.

Enjoy the summer, readers, and please post your summer reading suggestions below!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

O Tempora, O Mores

Much of my attention this weekend was absorbed by snowstorm Nemo, the latest in a series of meteorological insults to afflict the northeast. One aspect of this storm that irritated me (other than the fact that we are completely snowed in and are not likely to have clear streets for at least another day) was the complete lack of knowledge of what the name "Nemo" signifies.  I took an informal poll of the people around me -- and I work in a school -- and 99% of those asked identified Nemo as the clownfish in the extremely successful Disney movie.  Wrong answer.  Nemo is, classically speaking, the captain of the Nautilus.  The Nautilus was a fictional submarine that forms the center of the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.  The name Nemo means "no one."  I would have been satisfied if someone had identified Nemo as the opium-ridden law-writer in Bleak House, but no, not even that.  O tempore, O mores.

I promised a fiction post, so here it is.  First, The Impostor Bride, by Nancy Richler.  Scanning the jacket blurb, I initially thought that this was one of the genre of mail-order brides go west, etc., but I was wrong.  The impostor bride in question is Lily Azerov -- or so she says -- and she is a Holocaust survivor who has come to join her husband-to-be, Sol Kramer.  Sol, however, turns her down on sight, leaving his brother to pick up the pieces.  Nathan Kramer marries her and they have a daughter together before she disappears, leaving no trace.  This book gives a fascinating glimpse of post-war Montreal, and is also suspenseful enough to keep you reading until the end.

A Winter's Night, by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, also focuses on an environment utterly changed by war, but otherwise couldn't be more different from the above book.  A translation from the Italian, this book focuses on the Bruni family of the Po Valley.  Three generations and two wars pass before the book's story ends; it's not the easiest reading but it is compelling and full of emotion and complex characters.  The Kashmir Shawl also takes the reader far afield, but to India of the Raj Period.  By Rosie Thomas, this is more light-reading romance fiction than anything else, but it's a great story, if a little convoluted.  It's told in flashback, so it does get a little confusing at times.

If you've ever admired the work of Washington Irving, I would strongly recommend Seven Locks, by Christine Wade.  Set in Revolutionary Period Dutch New York, Wade retells an Irving tale from a completely different standpoint, but manages to keep much of Irving's feeling for setting.  It's an old story, but the author brings a fresh and new feeling to it, inviting in a generation of readers who may have never experienced Irving's work.

I think I hear snowplows outside, so I'm going to go cheer them on.  More next week.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Strictly Nonfic

I've been very fortunate this week -- the library abounded with new, interesting books, and it was a wonderful few days for this voracious reader.  As a consequence, I am going to post twice, and go through the nonfiction selections first.  Those of you who like fiction only can skip this and go back to carving watermelons or posting on facebook, or whatever you do in your rare free time.

Why Have Kids? is the somewhat alarming title of this new book by Jessica Valenti.  A feminist and a parent, Valenti revisits her own initial experiences as a parent in order to explore parenting in the United States as a whole.  I expected a diatribe calculated to create controversy; however, that's not what I found.  Valenti explores how the idea of American parenting doesn't match the reality; how parents (mostly mothers, as she discusses at great length the gender gap in parental care) see child rearing as a job, and feel forced at the same time to looooove the job as the "most important one they'll ever do."  Not so fast, says Valenti.  Seeing parenting as a job, and at the same time being forced by societal expectations to "treasure every moment" really messes with your head.  Parenting is a relationship, not a job, and American moms fool themselves into really believing that they have control over how their children turn out.  From the book: "[Mothers are] important, but not because we are women or because we are biologically related (or not) to our children.  We're important because we're one of the people that love and care for a growing human.  But if we want to take some joy in that experience, we need to let go of the notion that we are the only ones who can do it correctly, and if we are doing it right, it should mean some sort of suffering or tremendous self-sacrifice."  (Italics are my own)  Valenti goes on to write about many different issues of parenting, some sociological, others political. There's a long discussion of the stay-at-home mom phenomenon as well.  For me, the above is what resonates.  Of late, I've seen too many moms make themselves into complete doormats, shmattas, last in line for anything nice that's going around.  Whatever parenting is, it's not showing your kids that you are a pathetic nobody whose life is and should be completely consumed by theirs, and you're happy, so happy to do that!  I can't imagine that healthy relationships are built from a construct like that.

This blog has previously mentioned at least one book dealing with the topic of water; this new book by Jonathan Salzman, called Drinking Water, is restricted to that subtopic alone. Salzman discusses the public attitudes towards potable water, while tracing the history of its availability, ownership, and distribution.  This is written for the layman, and is very engaging.  Especially nice are the end-of-chapter vignettes that focus on a tangential water topic relevant to the chapter just concluded.

Last on the list for today is Coming of Age on Zoloft, by Katherine Sharpe.  Written by a woman who is approximately my age, it explores the development of identity of women (and some men) who were among the first young adults to use antidepressants.  At the time that Sharpe was reaching young adulthood, it was becoming more common to medicate young people who were experiencing issues of mood; often, these men and women would continue to use antidepressants well into adulthood.  Since this period of life is the time most people develop an identity, an idea of who they are as a person, Sharpe asks -- how does the drug they have been taking change that?  Does it make you a different person? Or does it help you become the person you would have been without the depression?  This is a really fascinating book that also delves into the relationship between people and the drugs they come to depend on, love, hate, need, and sometimes reject.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not Very Satisfying, But the Best I Can Do

I apologize for the long hiatus.  Part of it can be blamed on sheer laziness, part on the cold weather (my computer is in a very drafty room), and part on the dearth of finishable books lately.  The tendency I have to take out books that all have a similar theme has been alarming of late; just last week I had three books all dealing with a female protagonist dying slowly of tuberculosis.  I finished none of them.  Life's too short, and consumption is a rather nauseating thing to read about in great detail.  Another odd theme was that of communists in the 1930's.  This could have been interesting, but both books were rife with expletive, which no doubt the raffish young reds used in excess, but this kind of verisimilitude I can live without.

Because of a good book shortage, I found myself going back to my old favorites, and raiding some of the selections my children have taken out in the past weeks.  Bleak House is always a treat to reread -- there's certainly enough of it, at a million pages or so.  I've also been dipping into several Dorothy Sayers mysteries. She never disappoints.  I also reread The Night Journey, a children's book by Kathryn Lasky that I read multiple times growing up.  It tells the story of Sashie's escape from Tsarist Russia -- but when the story is being told, Sashie is Nana Sashie, the great-grandmother of Rache, who is the very modern protagonist. It's beautifully written and has lovely, haunting illustrations.


I did finish Syrie James' The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  There seem to be two genres of book dealing with Austen -- books about people who read Austen, and books trying to be or remodel Austen.  I seldom bother with the latter, disliking zombies or copycats.  The former can occasionally be very successful, like The Jane Austen Book Club.  James' book pretends to be the former, but really is the latter.  A librarian (who is really a frustrated English scholar) finds a lost letter from Austen in which she refers to a manuscript.  After a very quick search, the manuscript, The Stanhopes, is found.  Most of the remainder of the book is the text of the manuscript, and may I say that it is simply dreadful?  Any Austen lover would be very patient and forbearing not to toss the book across the room.  And in the end the frustrated scholar becomes a scholar once again, dumps her present boyfriend for the guy who finds the manuscript, and everyone lives happily and richly ever after.  I have no words to waste for the travesty that is The Stanhopes.

I've been spending some time reading a prolific mystery writer, Aaron Elkins.  His main character, Gideon Oliver, is also known as The Skeleton Doctor, as he is an anthropology professor who studies bones.  These are fun and light -- I guessed the ending of every one I read before the fifth chapter, and the characters are boilerplate -- and they are the perfect pick for some fairly brainless beach reading. You should be so lucky to be reading on a beach this time of year.

Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, was a bit of an unexpected hit with me.  The theme of the book (which I won't give away) is fairly grim.  However, the characters are wonderful and simply walk out of the pages fully formed.  The story doesn't really develop in the way I'd expected, and I didn't know what to think once I'd finished it, but I do feel it's worth trying.

I've read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  They are both excellent books, and I can recommend them wholeheartedly, but it helps if you don't know much about that period in history.  If you do, they can seem frustratingly slow-moving.  It's a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell, who rises to power during the reign of Henry VIII.  Bring Up the Bodies continues Wolf Hall; it's intended to be a trilogy so look out for a third book sometime late this year.


Nonfiction is my usual fallback, but even that has been humdrum lately.  I've always admired Oliver Sacks, and enjoyed The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars, but his newest, Hallucinations, didn't make the grade for me.  The earlier books were engaging and seemed to draw the reader into the personal stories of the subjects and their odd misfortunes; this new book is interesting, but is very technical and not as compelling for the lay reader.

One fascinating nonfiction read from this week is A Disposition to be Rich.  By Geoffrey C. Ward, it is the story of his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward.  The scandal of his time, Ferd Ward ran a Ponzi scheme which ruined, among others, ex-President Ulysses S. Grant.  Apparently without a conscience of any kind, Ferd ran rings around those close to him, and was the ultimate confidence man.  This is beautifully written, and more fascinating than fiction.

I'll end this post with plea -- can some of you recommend something compelling?  Something I can read happily, of some literary value, but not so much that no one can understand it?  Post in the comments, please!


Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Generous Reading List...

I've had a stack of books listed that I've intended to post; however, I haven't had the time to actually compose the posts.  That was solved this past week, during a teachers' meeting which obviously did not need my full attention.  I wrote it out in longhand in my notebook, which had the added advantage of making me look particularly engaged in the lecture.

It's rare that I read a book that I must finish in one sitting, and that immediately afterward I want to read again.  The last time that happened I must have been twelve.  Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, is one such book.  The protagonist finds himself working in the eponymous bookstore, where he soon discovers that this is no ordinary book-peddling establishment.  Yes, my next thought was -- Meth lab!  Drug front! -- but no, this is not the case.  The book itself is a puzzle story, but very much brought into the 21st century.  Another cool thing is that the cover glows in the dark, if that's any motivation for you.

Goldberg Variations is another book I've recently enjoyed.  It's by Susan Isaacs, whose books I don't usually read, but the title drew me in. (It's the title of one of my favorite pieces of music).  The book begins rather predictably -- a woman has been extremely successful in business.  However, she's been less successful in her personal life, becoming estranged from her family and alienating her best friend.  Her business needs a successor -- she's getting on in years -- so she invites her three grown grandchildren to her home to see which one is worthy of this inheritance.  These are people she barely knows, so she has a private detective agency compile dossiers for her.  The book quickly unspools into something almost philosophical and a bit unexpected, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

I have always enjoyed Ruth Rendell (not so much, though, her books under the name Barbara Vine) and I am always happy to read a new one.  St. Zita's Society does not disappoint.  Set on a posh block in London, the book switches perspective from character to character, including the servants, whose presence is pivotal.  Although it is a bit predictable, Rendell's characters are, as always, compelling.

The Bartender's Tale, by Ivan Doig (hat tip -- E.B.) is a really pleasant book to read.  Part fictional memoir, part coming-of-age tale, it's written so easily one doesn't notice the writing at all.  The narrator, Rusty, is a child growing up in Montana together with his father, who is the bartender of the title.  The story unfolds steadily with several rather formulaic plot twists (boy-meets-girl; hi-I'm-your-kid-but-you-didn't-know-it), but the interplay between characters holds the reader's attention until the end.

HHhH is a completely different story in every way possible.  (No, the title is not a typo).  By Laurent Binet, and translated from the original French, it's mindfully written as a novel but is actually a historical narrative about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.  Heydrich, known as "The Blond Beast," was Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and was one of the main architects of the Holocaust.  Narrative is a good word for this book, actually, because the author shares with the reader his process of putting together the pieces of this fascinating story.

There are more books to come; I managed to crank out several posts-worth during the meeting, so I'll post again next week.  Happy reading!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Nice Long Reading List At Last

For the past few months, I've been picking out books, reading the first few chapters (or pages) and then  tossing the book away in disgust or boredom.  I never used to do this -- I always viewed starting a book as a commitment that should not be broken, no matter how idiotic or boring the story, but I've come to the conclusion that life is too short to waste on a book I'm not enjoying.

This week, I got lucky.  One book after another was engaging, funny, illuminating, and held my interest until the end.  I'll start with The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  By Jonas Jonasson, a Swedish writer, this book is a Forrest Gump-like tale of an elderly man fleeing his 100th birthday party, while giving the reader a retrospective on his very fascinating century of life.  Very improbable, very silly, very very funny.  You can move on to more serious fare with The Resistance, by Peter Steiner.  Told in flashback form, this book explores the complicated relationship of the French with their German occupiers during World War II.  I liked this book precisely because it did not attempt to simplify the fuzzy lines between resistants and collaborators.

While you're in historical mode, pick up Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.  This book shifts back and forth between past and present, and goes from a postwar Italian fishing village to Hollywood and back.  It's a fairly complicated story, but heartwarming and with well-drawn characters.  The Lost Prince, by Selden Edwards, is historical but in a very strange form -- the protagonist mysteriously possesses a diary that predicts the future, and it is her task to make sure it happens.  It's not the most engaging book I've ever read, and the characters are more wooden than you'd expect, but it keeps you reading until the last page.  It helps, though, if you know a bit about history because it doesn't explain much.

In the category of oddball but interesting is Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  By Marisha Pessl, this is a really good read; there are no physics involved in this book, don't fret.  No one here is what he/she seems.  It's also illustrated.  I'll say no more; go ahead and read it.  The Double Game, by Dan Fesperman, is a terrific take on a spy novel, but no one seems to know who he/she is working for or why.  Or do they?  Again, things are not what they seem.

Gold, by Chris Cleave, takes us up to the present with two Olympian athletes who are central to the story.  Kate and Zoe are competitive bikers, friends, and sometime enemies.  Add a husband (Kate's), a child (Sophie, and she's very ill), and an obsession with Star Wars, and there's your compelling read.  Enjoy!