Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

A boy and his mother flee the Carribean at the start of World War II, but their boat is hit by German submarines. Phillip ends up injured and afloat with an elderly black man - the start of their survival adventure.

This 1969 children's book was recommended to me by a former librarian who cited it as a forgotten favorite. I read online it has been criticized as racist - and while there are spots of racism, they're included to show how Phillip grows and learns. How the experience allows him to overcome perceived differences and learn what even his mother didn't know.

The book moves quickly - despite the fact it covers quite a bit of time, it's only 140 pages. To keep kids interested and engaged it's dramatic but doesn't dwell overlong on the machinations of life marooned on the island. I found it interesting and well told. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Essential History of American Art by Suzanne Bailey

Rarely could I say I've read an art book - they're the kind of thing you dip in and out of, skimming a lot and reading just the interesting bits. This one, however, was different.

It doesn't try to be definitive or all-inclusive (although it covers a fair bit of territory). Also, artists are included if they were born elsewhere but worked in the US, or were born here and worked mostly elsewhere. There's a wiggly, loose definition of "American" art.

And, strangely, the artwork used to illuminate an artist is almost always NOT their best-known piece. I did a lot of Google image searching while I read to view other work and get a better career overview.

But what fascinating text! Brief bio and description of style and influences, with many artists shown with more than one piece of art.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I finished this book with a big sigh of, "What a GOOD BOOK!" John Green is really a genius.

Aza and her friend Daisy get swept into a mystery when a local, dirty businessman disappears - the dad of a kid Aza once knew from camp. They reconnect, and then they start spending time together. But Davis' parent problems aren't the only challenges to this teen relationship.

Green has talked a lot about the depiction of OCD in this book and his own struggles with mental illness. He worked hard to give an honest view of a misunderstood condition.

Which is why, honestly, this book reads a bit like a Matthew Quick book. That's a little weird to say because, "it's like a John Green" book is its own genre, but I mean it as a huge compliment.

As expected from Green, these are realistic teens with flaws and bad choices and internal struggles. But he's gone into new territory (one Quick has made his home) with this frank look at mental illness. You'll grow to love these kids, and also feel for them.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Junior high is hell anyway, but imagine the special kind of torture for a "different" kid in class. In this case, it's that Lewis is the only rez kid in the "smart" class full of white kids.

Lewis spots an opportunity to make a friend when a new Air Force kid comes into class; George doesn't know anyone's social status yet, so Lewis hopes that he can get a hook into him before the local prejudices jell. The boys bond over music, and it's the start of something special.

While the book is set in 1975, there's a lot that seems modern about Lewis' life, middle school friendships, and social prejudices. Seriously, haven't we evolved farther than this? Nope.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

Three young men, connected only by their friendship with Isaac; when suddenly he's gone, what do they have left?

These guys couldn't have less in common, and yet there's something special in each of them and it's not just Isaac. The book is told in three separate parts (you read all of one before you get to the next), so there's a bit of back and forth over the same timeline, but from different perspectives.

Each struggles with his grief differently - and all have unique ways of dealing with the loss. They're written as realistic teenaged boys: keeping secrets, making dumb choices, figuring things out.

What an awesome book! I'm going to be handing this one over a lot in the near future.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Origin by Dan Brown

These books are my weakness. If I can find the time, I'll read it in a sitting. This one took me longer, but that's not the book's fault.

The world's leading computer scientist is murdered on the cusp of a world-altering announcement. His friend and mentor, symbologist Robert Langdon, is in the audience and immediately takes on the task of finding and releasing his friends legacy to the world before it's lost forever.

Religious subterfuge! Bullets flying! World monuments and astounding architecture!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I know, stunning, but I had never read this. We chose it for the library's book discussion, which seemed like as good a reason as any to finally commit.

I listened to the audiobook, read by Rob Inglis, and I think that made a HUGE difference for me. Having the dramatization, the accents and all of that really helped draw me into the story.

Suddenly, having read this, much about pop culture makes more sense to me.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Short, in all senses: tiny stories - some just a sentence or two, none longer than a couple pages - compiled into a 100-page collection.

This series of vignettes is a look at a life. Fennelly writes about her husband and kids, about her father-in-law, about her own childhood and about her observations of life around her. Many are funny. Some are a little sad. All are relatable.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Secret Art of Being a Grown-up: Tips, Tricks, and Perks No One Thought to Tell You by Bridget Watson Payne

The title is almost longer than the book, but it's a fun, graphically interesting, perky little reminder about the important things.

Wear what you want. Get outside sometimes. Ask for help when you need it. Perfectionism helps no one ... you know these things, but it's always nice to have a refresher. This would be a good gift book. Or a good addition to your personal library for those occasional "brush-ups" on the things that need reminding.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

In this sensitive, sad story told in a mostly gray-scale graphic novel format, a boy juggles the emotions of his first big crush and his family's turmoil after his parents split up.

The only spots of color (yellow, blue, pink) in the book highlight hope: the girl he's in love with, happy memories, bravery, sobriety. They're few and far between - a physical depiction of the small, bleak lives of Truffle and Louis, their mom, and their distant dad. But there is, nonetheless, that hope for the future.

I loved this - it's a fantastic book about the tolls of alcoholism. It's not a happy story, but it's a truthful story about rebuilding a life and moving forward. I think it's an important book, an appropriate way for older kids and teens to either see themselves reflected or to better understand others.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle

While reading, I had to continually remind myself this book is a memoir - it reads like fiction, a novel of growing up in a strange environment.

Even as a child, Kelly knew the stories that swirled around her may or may not be true: Her mother died when Kelly was an infant. Her faux-aristocratic grandfather is a showman. She was forbidden to talk about some parts of their lives (the boat they live on, the porn store they own). The book is full of what you'd politely call "characters," like the other marina regulars and Kelly's extended family members.

We get the story simultaneously from two different Kellys: the child living it and not understanding it all, and the adult looking back through the lens of experience. She's hungry for love. She's hungry for information. She's dying to get out of there and build a different life.

I enjoyed the book (I even dreamed about it one night). I thought it was a great look at a strange childhood - an unusual perspective on life and family.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Mountain by Paul Yoon

Six short stories make up this small collection, a pocket-sized bit of literature: A homeless woman goes to work in a camera factory. A nurse steals morphine from her patients. A woman discovers a plane crash and the pilot's body. A hotel maid wanders away for a day's adventure.

I read until the end, but I can't say I necessarily enjoyed this one. The stories are all very dark, mostly sad, and without much resolution. I don't usually mind that much, but I really wanted there to be something here that shone a light of hope, in the end.

It's beautifully written, and the characters are heartbreakingly real. Just very, very sad.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trickster: Native American tales by Matt Dembicki

What an interesting project! It's a pairing of Native American storytellers with cartoonists to present a host of trickster stories in graphic form

Rabbits, raccoons, mink, wolves and more - the trickster takes many forms. Sometimes the goal is pure entertainment, and often it's also a morality story. I've always loved these stories that explain nature (how an alligator got its skin, why a buzzard stinks) or give insight into how people perceive animals and the world around them.

I loved the diversity of the stories presented here, and I love that each tale looks different, too; some are more realistic, others more stylized and "cartoonish" in form. Overall, this is a fantastic introduction to the trickster genre in general and the Native American stories specifically.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

In a heart-wrenching memoir, Sherman Alexie explores his complicated relationship with his mother and his grief after her death. The book's narrative is expressed through a combination of essays, poetry, honor songs, and more.

There's a tradeoff, depending on your reading format: the physical book has pictures, and you get the visual formatting in the poetry. In the audiobook you miss out on those - but you get ALL the emotion as the author reads this work himself.

And I do mean ALL the emotion - there's a river of tears from Alexie in the audiobook, and I can only imagine how many they edited out. It's sometimes overwhelming, in the true, honest way he expresses the story of his life and of his family. It's so, so good, but it took me a while to get through this audiobook - it's not the kind of thing you want to listen to every day.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich

In a series of short stories, we explore life with Ray Halfmoon and his grandfather: Ray makes a trade, the pair take care of the neighborhood pets while everyone is away for Christmas, and Ray deals with a really, really bad haircut.

I picked up this 2002 book because it was on a list of books with positive depiction of native characters. But it's not just strictly about the fact they're Seminole-Cherokee - the stories are really about everyday life and a kid's experiences.

Each chapter is a short story, but through them all you get a look at life for one boy, who lives with his grandfather. They have a great relationship, and it's fun to see the world through their eyes.

After reading it, I discussed the book with a nine-year-old friend and she agreed it sounded like a fun book to read. I'll recommend it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O'Neill

Turning all the fairy princess conventions on their head, a girl is saved from imprisonment, a boy is saved from danger, a town is saved from destruction, and a kingdom is saved from evil.

A brave princess (with truly awesome hair) starts the action by saving a maiden trapped in a tower. Learning independence and self-sufficiency, the pair go about doing other brave and wonderful things. And fall in love.

There's a lot packed into the 53 pages of this graphic novel, and it's done well. I laughed, I was surprised, and I was very impressed by O'Neill's bold ambition in the story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Night Wanderer by Drew Haden Taylor

A vampire returns to his homeland, seeking something. His path crosses with a teenage girl struggling with high school and family drama, who is looking for her own way out.

This one was on a recommended list for its fair, honest depiction of native people. There's a multi-generational family, racial prejudice, and discussion of ancestral beliefs. There's also the first native vampire.

Beyond that, it's a fairly common story of a teen struggling to become. She's trying (unsuccessfully) to balance friends and a boy. She's not doing well in school but doesn't really care. She's at odds with her parents, and she isn't sure where to turn.

It's a good story, but feels like it should be part of a larger tale. It's incomplete in itself. I wanted more. Hopefully, they'll continue it in a series.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

In a rough patch after his mom dies, 17-year-old Matt gets hired (and mentored) by his single, successful across-the-street neighbor, who owns the funeral home.

The job keeps him out of trouble, offers a little pocket money, and allows him to spectate on other people's grief in a reflection of his own. He also meets a girl whose grandmother has just passed away - a girl who challenges him in interesting, confusing ways.

Reynold's a shining star in the teen lit world, and for good reason. The book is sad without being maudlin, and it's realistic in the way modern kids deal with emotion. It's a fantastic urban book about a black neighborhood and the residents who occupy it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick

David Granger wakes up from brain surgery muttering a name - but not Hank (his son), Ella (his beloved granddaughter), or even Laura (his deceased wife). No, it's the name of an arch enemy from his Vietnam War days, and the time has come for him to make things right.

Hank doesn't understand David, but their living together during David's convalescence will be good for them all (if nobody dies). Soon Hank learns you have to go deeper than David's words to find out who he really is.

I adore everything Matthew Quick writes, and this is no exception. It's a tough book sometimes - David is a crabby old bastard - but like Hank we see there's much more going on that first glance suggests.

David's friends are a diverse and interesting bunch, and he loves them as if they were blood. They're a fun bunch to meet, and they keep the story moving as they aid and support David's quest. The book's title is a bit of a surprise: a story from Laura that's not fully explained until the very end.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Moo by Sharon Creech

Reena's not sure what to expect when her family packs up and moves to Maine, but somehow she hadn't even considered befriending a cow.

Zora the cow comes with an elderly lady, Mrs. Falala, who owns her. Reena's parents volunteer their kids to "help out" at the neighbors, which is a learning experience for all involved.

The book is mainly told in prose, with some well-placed poetic pieces and graphic presentation. Reena's 12 years old, but I think the book could be read younger, too. It's sweet and funny, a little sad and very, very good.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In a near-distant future, life on earth sucks. So everybody lives full, rich lives inside "the OASIS" - a virtual reality computer world; you can live, love, work, and play all in the OASIS, only rarely venturing to reality for food or other personal needs.

When the guy who invented the OASIS dies, he reveals he's left an "easter egg" inside, and the first to find it and solve its puzzles will be his heir. Everybody loses their minds, looking for it.

We follow from the perspective of one teen, scraping by and mostly homeless in the real world, and also searching for the egg and attending high school in the virtual world.

I loved, loved, loved this book and I can't stop talking about it! Everybody in the future is obsessed with the 1980s, so the book is futuristic and sci-fi while also reveling in John Hughes movies, electro pop music, and Atari games. There are these parallels of future and past, while also the parallels of real and virtual. It's a lot to keep sorted, and it's done sooo well.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Gulp: Adventures On the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

A humorous, informative book about the science and false beliefs about the internal system that runs from your mouth through your stomach and out your butt.

Roach has become famous for her snarky, hilarious approach to often icky nonfiction subjects. This one's got a lot of ick in it - spit, farts, poop, digestion, and more - but she makes it worth the time by dispelling falsehoods, researching history, and interviewing scientists on the cutting edge.

I picked this for book discussion and we circulated a LOT of copies, so I'll be interested to see if anybody shows up to talk about it. For me, the chapter on Elvis made the whole book worthwhile.

Incidentally, I listened to the audiobook, read by Emily Woo Zeller, which was awesome. She helped convey the tongue-in-cheek way the book is written and the glee with which Roach often imparts her research.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Passion is at the heart of this historical novel, where a young woman chases her lover from Chile to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849.

Eliza has led a pleasant but sheltered youth, an orphan taken in by a spinster British woman and her businessman brother in Valparaiso, Chile. When she falls in love with a company clerk, her future as a society lady quickly evaporates: He leaves in the madness to find California gold, and she disappears to follow in a delusion of love and lust.

Her amazing adventure is quite a story. She falls in with the wrong people - who end up being the right people - and finds a family away from home. She meets people from all countries and all walks of life, living out a journey she never could have imagined: becoming an assistant to a Chinese healer, impersonating a man, playing piano in a brothel and more. It's only when she gives up her quest that she finds that happiness has been building all along.

Monday, August 21, 2017

My Brother's Husband (Volume 1) by Gengoroh Tagame

A Japanese father is forced to deal with his emotions about his twin brother when a large Canadian man arrives at his door, introducing himself as the now-deceased brother's husband.

This was a quick, fun book that dealt lightly with some heavy emotions. Through his young daughter's enthusiasm for life, Yaichi gradually comes to terms with his memories of Ryoji's coming out and his feelings about his gay brother-in-law Mike. 

Traditional Japanese social rigidity limits any adult show of emotion, and Ryoji is sometimes jealous of Mike's ability to hug Kana at will and to openly cry and express his grief. Kana's buoyant excitement in discovering she has an uncle to introduce to her friends and show around town acts as a catalyst for the two men's friendship.

There's obviously more to the story, and I'll be interested to read more about these complex characters. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Three Junes by Julia Glass

Readers check in with a family's members three times (in the month of June) to learn about their relationships and loves. We meet recently widowed Paul as he vacations in Greece and ponders his new life and the condition of his family. Then we meet his sons, years later, as they gather for Paul's funeral. Further on, we meet up with prodigal son Fenno when his dog - his last link to his mother - dies and is buried.

We read this for book discussion. I was only halfway through by our discussion date, and decided I was going to continue because - unlike everyone else - I was enjoying the story.

A lot of the book centers around Fenno and his life off in New York. He moves across the world, graduates college, begins a business, comes to terms with his sexuality, deals with the impact of AIDS on his circle of friends, and makes visits back to Scotland to see his family. What he doesn't do is fall in love. Which makes him a slightly tragic figure.

I liked the book - it's rather quiet, without big drama. Just people trying to do the best they can, and sometimes failing.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

A preview of the upcoming movie adaptation was enough to finally convince I needed to read this children's classic. The extra bonus in the library catalog was an available unabridged audio version read by the author herself.

An awkward girl and her genius preschool brother are swept into the intergalactic war of good and evil as they try to bring their scientist father back from a prolonged absence. They're joined by a neighborhood teenage boy with his own special talents.

Led by three supernatural creatures who steer their adventure, the children encounter many new and different creatures. They also learn to recognize their own strengths and the good in the world.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, but reflect that I probably would not have enjoyed it as a child (I hated science fiction). I'm certainly glad that I'll understand the references now, as this book is considered an essential classic in the canon of children's literature.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

A girl is entrusted with a very special box yet given little information on its use or implications.

When almost-middleschooler Gwendy meets the suited man, she is strangely drawn to the box he offers. She needs to have that box! But then he's gone, and she's left with a million questions and one strange, small box with a series of colored push buttons on top.

This is my favorite kind of Stephen King story: it's creepy and sinister, yet really left up to your imagination to fill in the blanks. Because what's scariest is very personal, and you create your own nightmare with his subtle framework and direction.

Also, this audiobook recording includes a bonus short story, "The Music Room," based on an Edward Hopper painting. Also fantastic, and very, very minimal.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

When a lonely teenager attaches herself to the new neighbors, their problems become a part of her, too.

This was a strange story. When it finished I sat for a minute just trying to figure out what really happened in the end. I'm still not sure why the book is entitled, "History of Wolves."

It shifts back and forth from the summer she - Madeline, Linda, whatever her name is - was 14 and babysat for the family across the lake, and to more recent times, as she's still affected by the traumas of her childhood.

We know right away the little kid, Paul, is dead (in the current timeframe). We don't know what happens to him until halfway through the book, and really, the book isn't about that. It's about Linda's needy, strange relationship with Paul's mom, Patra. It's about Linda's strange relationship with a girl from school. Or about her strange relationship with a teacher. Or about how she was born into a commune. OK - so it's about Linda's strangeness? I'm just working through it here.

I listenened to the audiobook, which was well-read by Susan Bennett. The story keeps you going, and it's well written. I'm just unsure about my own feelings about the conclusion.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Addressed as a letter to a friend seeking advice, Adichie gives a brief, powerful primer on feminism in a changing world.

While it's addressed to a new mother on raising her daughter, the lessons are equally important for anyone. We all impact the next generation, and the first steps to change must be our own.

It's an amazing, succinct piece with a lot to ponder. It's probably worth repeated reading and is truly the kind of book you should buy to revisit annually.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Naked Without a Hat by Jeanne Willis

When things get crowded at his mother's house (with the new boyfriend), Will gains his first taste of independence by moving into a rooming house. It's the start of an eye-opening adventure in friendship, employment, and the many flavors of love.

I enjoyed the book and its cast of lovable oddballs. His mom is overbearing, but it's a realistic protectiveness she shows - they're both ready for something new in their lives, but it's hard to let go of the comfortable, usual patterns of life. His flatmates are all wacky in their own ways, but together they form a new kind of family.

Will's holding onto a big secret - and I'm not giving it away here - that left me dumbfounded. I had no idea such a thing was possible (I turned to Google once I was finished with the book).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A truly odd woman navigates modern life, awkwardly. It's also a wonderfully weird book about the power of friendship!

Eleanor goes to work, does her job, and then goes home. Her wardrobe and meal plan - actually her whole existence - are designed for simplicity and hardiness. Except for the vodka, which gets her through the weekend.

We don't know much about Eleanor at the start, but throughout the story more information is dosed out in drips and drabs. Some truly startling pieces are laid down almost casually when you least expect it. She's a tough nut on the outside, but that protective shell hides the true core of her story - and things she's been trying to protect herself from, too.

Eleanor almost accidentally makes a friend one day when her work computer goes on the fritz and the IT guy pays a visit. Through that friendship, Eleanor also gains lots of perspective on human interactions, common pleasantries, and social mores. She goes to a party! She attends a funeral! She orders a drink in a pub!

This blossoming throughout the book is funny and inspiring (don't we all feel a bit socially awkward at times?) and offers hope that no one is ever too damaged to move forward.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Martian by Andy Weir

This is a tale of raw, basic survival in a rough terrain. One man, abandoned on Mars.

We read this for the library's book discussion, and many readers were surprised by how much they liked it. It's more about science than about science-fiction. There aren't ray guns and alien life forms; instead it's about one human surviving because he knows how to do advanced chemistry.

Mark Watney isn't about to give up, despite insurmountable odds. Not enough water? Chemistry! Not enough food? Botany! No communication? Rocks!

I have seen the Matt Damon movie, and it's very good. It's not quite the same, but honestly both stand up pretty well on their own (or even in comparison).

I highly recommend this one, even if you're not into advanced science and especially if you don't enjoy sci-fi. It's a captivating story, and you don't have to understand every formula to understand what a creative thinker the character (hell - the author!) is to persevere in these situations.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

O!M!G! Listen to this audiobook! I'm just gonna put that right up there at the top of this post, because it's super important. I am serious. Listen to this audiobook.

This is a strange tale - an experimental novel - told mainly by the spirits that inhabit the Washington DC cemetery where Abraham Lincoln's son was temporarily interred upon his death in 1862. It takes place over a very short time period as the living and dead observe the boy's funeral cortege, the family's grief, and the father's late-night cemetery visit to grieve in private.

There are a lot of opinions, stories, and experiences involved in the novel's narrative, and they're each systematically logged and annotated for your reference. Which is where the audiobook's special nature comes in handy. The library bought an audiobook copy especially because I'd read an article about the 166 narrators they used to record it.

The book is incredible and completely engrossing. Even in some of the more strangely told parts of the story, it's fascinating how each voice brings its own perspective to the events: was the moon full, new, or a sliver that night? How to describe the strange angularity of a most famous man?

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

A struggling college English professor finds the jolt of writing inspiration he needs when his estranged mother is very publicly arrested for assaulting a Senator.

The novel juggles several storylines: grown men stunted by their addiction to an online quest game, a childhood friendship's long-lasting impacts, the radical 70's story of his mother, childhood tales of folklore and fantasy.

I really enjoyed the story - the hopping between time periods and characters kept it fresh, yet every divergence presented characters you felt strongly about (sometimes pity, other times irritation and even hatred). The overall theme that everyone's haunted: by the past, by expectations, by a decision made or an action not taken.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a sweeping, multi-generational storyline, a modern American tells the complete story and history that led to his fantastical intersex existence.

This book won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and we chose to read it for the library's book discussion. A lot of ink was spilled by reviewers who criticized the words used and treatment of Cal's medical condition, but I think it's a fantastic read and a really good book to talk about after you've finished it. Beyond the gender conversation, there's a lot to discuss: the immigrant experience, chasing the American Dream, race relations.

And aside from that - and maybe most importantly - it's really a great story well told. I listened to the audiobook (excellently read by Kristoffer Tabori) and Callie became a friend during the 21-hour duration of the book: I wanted to know what happened to her, how she felt, how Cal emerged, and how he coped. Her experience was not in any way similar to my own, and I wanted to see the world through her eyes and experience her remarkable family.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

In this snarky, casual book, the modern reader receives a no-holds-barred look at what hygiene, fashion, and society were REALLY like for women in the 19th century.

BBC melodramas, romance novels, and the balm of time have worked a true magic: the past has become so sanitized and glossy that we pine for the days of chivalry - completely forgetting that there was poop everywhere, the ownership and operation of your vagina was a medical mystery, and a stricter-than-strict social code of mores meant you were hardly allowed to speak.

This is a funny book that puts you right into the action. The author is speaking directly to YOU the reader, and even responds to your questions and complaints as she imagines you'd be having them. Not in any way scholarly, but certainly educational!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Night Film by Marisha Pessi

The death of a famous, reclusive director's daughter prompts a disgraced journalist to reopen his notebook and investigate. Was Ashley Cordova cursed, or merely tragic?

Scott McGrath is driven by revenge and shame into reopening old sores - Stanislav Cordova was the man and the story that destroyed his reputation as an investigative reporter. Looking into Ashley's short life is a side door that leads Scott into a dark place he never really left, years ago.

NOTE: a lot's been said in other reviews about the "enhanced content" that accompanies this book. The included PDF had articles, webpage screenshots, etc.  I listened to the audiobook and didn't realize my narrator was also describing that additional material until I was almost finished with the book - it had been seamlessly integrated for audiobook listeners.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

In a series of short stories we discover one man's effect on popular music in the past, the present, and the near future. Also, we see the world around him and it's interconnectedness.

Bennie was a punk kid in a rotten band who couldn't get a date. Bennie is a record company owner navigating a new world of tech. His long-time assistant takes care of everything - and pockets quite a lot, too. Her best friend in college met a terrible end. Her son is interested in pauses during songs.

This book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I have no idea why I have not read it until now. It's all the things I love: music, fandom, quality writing, interconnected short stories.

Friday, May 19, 2017

All Grown Up by Jami Attengerg

What is adulthood, really, if you don't get married or have a family? No mortgage, a steady but boring job, no serious responsibilities ... things are less complicated for Andrea Bern than for many other 40 year olds. So why isn't she happy?

In vignette stories we get an idea of Andrea's life: a friend's wedding, getting to know a neighbor, conversations with her therapist, on a date, on the phone with her mother, watching a coworker give her first big presentation. Andrea's featherweight life is a contrast with her brother's huge and heavy responsibility to his own tiny family.

It's funny and a little sad, but very well written and quick to consume. The story is complex in the way life really is, and I understood this character because I have been her, at times. Loved it!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Love, Alice by Barbara Davis

In the 1960s, a young English woman is sent away in shame. In the now, a young widow wonders where things went so wrong. The two stories meet and intermingle under the guard of a sad South Carolina cemetery angel.

The most famous marker in the cemetery sits not far from Dovie's fiance's headstone, where she visits every day to eat her lunch and wonder why he committed suicide. But one day her attention is drawn over to the Tate angel when an elderly woman leaves a letter (and her glasses) there.

Dovie's beating herself up about something she had no control over, and she's falling apart at the seams. Suddenly, it's much more interesting to get involved in somebody else's drama, even though she can clearly see this meddling is going to be bad for her career and future.

I'm not sure why I picked this book up, and I'm even less sure why I kept reading - it's way too saccharine for my taste, but I persisted. It's not a bad book - if you like romance novels and fated love stories you'll enjoy it. There are twists and minor surprises along the way. It resolves well. (Blech.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Something happened in the backyard, with six adults and three children in attendance, and everybody has the feels about it.

But you'll have to wait more than 200 pages to find out what happened, because the author keeps you in suspense through half the book as chapters flip back and forth between "we still haven't recovered from the barbecue" and "the day of the barbecue."

If I hadn't been reading this for book discussion, I probably would have quit at about page 25: too glossy and suburban for my taste. But I can't actually say I disliked the book overall - I'm gonna give it more of a meh, with bonus points for the quality of discussion that can (and did) spin out of it. Friendship, marriage, responsibility, guilt, sex, mental health - it's all in there.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Other F-Word by Natasha Friend

When a severely allergic teenager decides to track down his sperm donor in order to do genetic testing, he ends up with more than he bargained for: a passel of half-siblings, too.

I loved this book - it does a stellar job dealing with all the conflicted feelings about "genetic source material" since there are so many diverse families involved: the book includes lesbian parents, heterosexual parents, mothers who gave birth and mothers who did not, kids with siblings, singletons, and even twins who disagree about this life-altering decision. There's a best friend who's adopted, which allows a conversation about the decision to donate sperm versus giving away a baby. The kids are teens - so they're a bit more adult in perspective and yet still very involved in family units. They're in turn curious, scared, anxious, and unexpectedly delighted to find someone with whom they share DNA.

And in spite of all these emotions and potentially heavy subject matter, it's a quaint book that's funny and utterly captivating. I'm not giving too much away to reveal the story's also about teen crushes, bullying, troublemaking/underachieving, and childish grudges. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Grief can make you do weird things. In Petula's house, it's made Mom a cat hoarder, it's made Dad a workaholic, and Petula has turned to statistics, probability, and news of the strange in an all-out effort to reduce risk and stave off danger in all its disguises.

When the kids in (lame) art therapy class realize they're actually becoming friends, together they find ways to move past their problems and let go of some of their fear. Petula may even learn to walk the short way home past the construction site. But a big secret changes everything, and they're all forced to reevaluate their hearts: forgiveness may be harder to conquer than fear.

I loved this book, and I read it in a single sitting. They're quirky, fun teenagers with relatable lives and fears. They're each working through some heavy shit, and together they may just make it out alive.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield

With each chapter titled by a song, music critic Rob Sheffield uses this memoir to tells stories about his sisters, their influence on his listening (and fashion), and his ongoing affection for 1980s pop music.

His summer as an ice cream truck driver (titled not with Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man" but with Prince's "Purple Rain"), his almost-seduction by a former teacher, his love of cassingles, a season in the discos of Spain, his high school wrestling career - these are all stories told with nostalgia through their links to songs of the 1980s.

You don't have to love the music to understand the book, but it helps (it also helps that I'm roughly the same age as the author with a similar familiarity to John Hughes movies and MTV) But Sheffield is a guy who writes about music and its effect on our emotions in a really accessible way (see also Love is a Mixtape). This is really a series of stories about growing up and figuring things out.

He's a brave man to admit some of his more bubblegum proclivities, to sing the praises of recreational karaoke, and to analyze what it is about Duran Duran that makes them so irresistible (along with their baffling career longevity). Also, it's adorable the way he dotes on his sisters.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

After meeting in a college art class, Sharon and Mel(ody) become inseparable, their lives absolutely intertwined as they start their own animation company, drink and smoke, work, and even live together in the studio. Just as they're becoming legitimate stars, an unexpected emergency derails everything.

The book's about creative energy and inspiration, and it's about friendship and how close two people can be and still not really see one another. These women mine their personal lives to make intimate, biographical films, but not everyone is estatic to find themselves part of the movies.

I loved this book - they're self-absorbed, self-destructive artists in the prime of their lives. But they're forced into a delayed adulthood that ultimately expands their perspective and their work. It's sometimes hard to watch them sleepwalk through life with such oblivion - hard to watch because it's easy to recognize yourself in these characters.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

When Tom returns to Australia from the WWI battlefield, he's alive and whole but broken inside. He takes a solitary, regimented job on a remote lighthouse, but didn't count on meeting the headmaster's engaging daughter before he set off.

The trajectory of his life is changed with Isabel - suddenly the tiny island of Janus isn't so lonely with a lovely wife and a happy life. Starting a family becomes an exercise in resilience and heartbreak until the day an infant girl and a dead man drift ashore in a boat and they decide to keep the child as their own. On Janus it's easy to forget the impact this decision has on the rest of the world, but eventually the couple discovers the full implication of their deceit.

This is a gorgeous book, emotional and gripping, yet lyrical and dreamy, too. You're lost in the descriptions of time and place, of the feel of the wind and the wonder of the lighthouse's works. It's also rough on your heart because there are no easy answers - everyone involved is fallible and imperfect. There are no true black-and-white answers to this novel's dilemmas.

We read this one for the library's book discussion group, and it was the spark for some very interesting conversation. It's recently been released as a film, and I'm interested enough to make time for that, too, in the near future.




Monday, March 6, 2017

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

As the second generation growing up on a Wisconsin apple orchard, Mary Francis Lombard has a contented life full of farming and extended family. She can't imagine a different life, or even one she'd prefer.

The child narrator of this adult fiction novel offers a unique perspective on the family and business of the orchard - she sees the world through a kid-shaped window and often doesn't necessarily understand what she sees and hears. She's precocious and curious about the grown-ups but often believes her own fictions rather than the truth. The adult relationships around her take on a fuzziness; they're less important than the make-believe war between cousins or the wonder of a new teacher.

This is a quiet novel of rich characters and small dramas. There's a lot of family and almost-family at the orchard - it's practically a commune and various relatives share several houses on the farm. There's also a caring, tough female "hired man" who suffers a great and terrible love story.

I loved this book, and since I have friends who own an orchard I understood more than I otherwise might have about the seasonality of the work to be done. The small dramas of the story make for a quiet novel about family and growing up, and an overall excellent read.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blessings by Anna Quindlen

On a fading family estate, an abandoned newborn baby changes the lives of both the troubled young caretaker who finds her and the home's former socialite matriarch.

A main theme of the book is secrets - everybody's got 'em - and how the weight of those secrets affects their lives. Nearing the end of her life, Lydia Blessing is starting to have a different perspective on the choices she's made in life. Even the baby is both a mystery and a secret.

Skip's a good guy with bad friends and decisions to make on the direction of the rest of his life. He went to jail rather than rat out his friends, but now that he's on parole he's inspired not to fall back into the old comfortable ruts. His raising the baby is destined for failure, but everyone seems willing to overlook that fate for awhile, anyway.

We chose this for the library's book discussion, and I worried this book was would be too saccharine for my taste. It is sweet, but I loved that it didn't work out as tied-in-a-bow as I'd worried, and the characters were more complex that anticipated. It's more a slice-of-life story than the parable for clean living I'd anticipated.

Also, I listened to the audiobook, which was read by actress Joan Allen - quite the A-list talent!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

It's hard to imagine anyone intentionally becomes an internet writer once you know what Lindy West has been through with trolls, online stalking and spamming, and more. And yet they do because like Lindy proves, there may be a bright future ahead if we can steer this thing in the right direction.

I found this book at an ideal time - I'm more and more aware that we each have a voice, and Lindy's using hers by taking up the feminist flag for acceptance and compassion concerning body image, rape, and reproductive rights. I listened to the audiobook read by the author, so this memoir was much like a conversation with a friend: listening to her stories, sharing in her joys and griefs, anger at her misfortunes.

This book is truly excellent. Lindy's got a way with words and she's got a great sense of humor, but the book's also frequently heartbreaking. She's developed quite an armor without losing her humanity.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Where, you ask, is the most dangerous place on earth? The American high school, of course.

This book is considered a novel, but it's almost a series of short stories. Perspective constantly shifts between students, and only a young, new English teacher pops up again and again with an embroiled outsider's perspective on the kids' drama.

The book takes these students from 8th grade through senior year. They study (or not), they party, they get in trouble, and they try to figure out what the world has to offer. We see their actions through the lens of other students (and their teacher), we see their roles in the social caste system, and sometimes we see things from their perspective, too - which often brings new information that alters your reaction to their behavior.

Pretty much they're all self-absorbed shits (they're teenagers - that's the default setting!). But Miss Nicholl isn't too far distanced from her own youth, and her naivety helps illustrate that maturity isn't a threshold you step over, it's more of a series of steps toward an unattainable goal.

The roiling dramas of high school is a near universal touchstone, even if you didn't grow up in this new, technological age, and this is a really, really good book full of complex characters and horrifying, realistic events.

It's being marketed as an adult novel, but it's very much like many of the young adult books being published today (I think the difference is the insertion of an adult rather than an all-teen perspective).

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

On the run from the same government she once worked for, Alex (not her real name) is a human knot of neurosis, suspicion, chemical booby traps, deadly weapons and taciturn distrust. But the whole situation shifts when a lethal trap misfires and she ends up partnering with her would-be assassin to turn the tables and take down their pursuers.

Yes, I listened to 17 hours of this book. And the book was OK - probably even good because I did actually spend 17 freaking hours of my life with it - but I'll only recommend it with a shrug.

It's a government agent novel, with espionage and backstabbing and digital footprints and lots of "trust no one." Yet there's still plenty of time to ponder the luxury of the curls in his hair - my god those curls (she's obsessed). It turns into a romance of unlikely partners that smolders and stalls so long I wanted to beg them to just consummate and put us all out of our misery! (maybe I used slightly stronger words)

Do you like that kind of thing? Then you'll love this.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Two New York City kids get to know their grandmother (and learn about their whole family, really) when they're sent to spend a summer in Barbados.

Teenager Dionne is sure Bird Hill is hell; her mother's always threatened with "sending her home," and she's not sure what she's done to deserve this punishment. Her younger sister, Phaedra, is more accepting of the trip, making friends and exploring this new terrain.

It's a heartbreaking, heart-warming story of family and disappointment and love and growing up. Again and again, men prove to be a disappointment, but the warmth and strength of the community's women buoy the spirit and the story.

The audiobook, read by Robin Miles, was simply INCREDIBLE and added a rich layer to the story's depth with the various accents and patois. We chose to read this title for the library's book discussion, and I'm glad we found it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell

Danny Doyle overcame a tragic, white-trash childhood to become a slick TV-ready criminal psychologist, but when his beloved grandfather becomes ill, Dr. Sheridan Doyle is forced to revisit his past. On a whim, he finds himself helping an old friend with a murder investigation that has stirred up generations of bad blood and ill will in this small Pennsylvania town.

Scarlet Dawes is the mine owner's daughter, rich and spoiled ... and a complete psychopath. Chapters alternate perspective between Danny and Scarlet, so we know right away that she's guilty. But maybe that's not the real mystery.

I love Tawni O'Dell's Appalachian mining town fiction - she's got such a good voice for the small town people in these depressed communities. This one's got intense suspense and a lot of history - but also a lot of fashion: both Danny and Scarlet love proving they're no longer po-dunk, with all their designer labels!

I listened to the audiobook - read by Nick Podehl and Amy McFadden - and the eight hours passed in no time while I was wrapped in the drama.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

I love everything from Neil Gaiman, and I especially adore the audiobooks where he reads it himself. So pretty much, I loved this collection of poetry and short stories from 2006.

Many of these stories have links to other Gaiman works - one was an early idea for The Graveyard Book, and one that's part of the world of American Gods. Many have won awards. My favorite is a backwards, unwinding of the book of Genesis.

In an audiobook this collection of vignettes could be a bit confusing (I found it hard to hear the breaks between stories, sometimes - to know I was moving into a new world). Also, sometimes I have to review poetry more than once for it to more fully absorb. To solve these challenges, I also kept a paper copy of the book for reference and review.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars by Jessica Abel

Come on, with a title like that you know I had to check it out!

In the future, former Earthlings now are farming Mars for water. Many were contracted into virtual slavery in the process, so contracts have a bad reputation as being exploitive and evil.

Which is why no one's exactly celebrating when Patricia Nupindju rashly signs as a skategirl with the hoverderby league, leaving her farmer family in a lurch without the help - both her labor and her mechanical aptitude.

This volume is an interesting setup - it lays the groundwork for a longer, more detailed story. I especially enjoyed the "wikipedia" entries at the back that give more in-depth explanation of immigration, terraforming, and hoverderby.

I'll be looking for the next volume (fall 2017) to continue the drama.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Over several decades, the owners, editors, and reporters of a Rome-based English newspaper deal with one another, the quick-turnaround news cycle, family, life abroad, and the decline of print journalism in this comic novel.

The book's like an interconnected series of short stories - vignettes of life from the modern-day editor of the paper, the original founder, his descendants, the copy editors, a wanna-be stringer, and more. There's love, there's hate, it's funny and it's sad.

I really liked this book - it's a gossipy bit of behind the scenes in the world of journalism. I've been listening to the audiobook in the quilting studio, and it's been sort of like serial television: office rivalries and home life and a lot of the challenges of expatriates in Italy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sabotage

by Neal Bascomb

One of the oft-forgotten stories of WWII is that of the people who resisted Nazi occupation within their homelands. While Norway was able to remain neutral in the first world war, scientific discoveries made that country uniquely attractive to Hitler's regime.

This book details the ways in which Norwegians worked to prevent the Nazi's from gaining access to one of the most crucial components of their scientific process to become the first nation with an atomic bomb. The Vemork hydroelectric power station was capable of producing heavy water, an element determined to make such a weapon possible. Hitler's team of scientists encouraged use of the plant and so it became a target for the resistance.

In a country without its own military, civilians became spies and warriors. This book chronicles the ways one group of men worked to overcome the highly trained military that had overtaken their homeland. These individuals survived treacherous winter conditions, crossed the sea to be trained with British soldiers, and outrun soldiers on a massive manhunt. They become spies and saboteurs in hopes of preventing their homeland from having any part in one of the most devastating atrocities ever committed by man.

I was riveted by this story and pictured some of the mentioned locations clearly. I gasped aloud when towns where mentioned where my ancestors once lived. I cheered for each victory the locals managed and when they were able to provide compassionate care for wounded and starving resistance fighters. Since reading this title, I've purchased it as a gift, and recommended it to history buffs and everyone I know with Norwegian heritage.