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Search Results for: friday reads
I’ve always loved mythology. I’ve read Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and middle eastern. But one of the books I loved, long ago, was of Norse mythology.
And as usual, Neil Gaiman delivers. The gods here are more equally represented, although Thor and Loki do manage to take up a lot of space in the stories. But these aren’t the gods as presented by Kirby and Stan Lee, and dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber. These are the true Norse gods, terrible, dangerous, ancient, and to be called on only at your peril. Loki is not conflicted, but definitely without remorse. Thor, well, red bearded and not so bright. Odin is a dark, brooding wise and terrible. Even the goddesses are not entirely one sided.
The forward is worth reading for the origins of these particular stories. The author points out the melding of religions in the battles of the gods of the Vanir (brother & sister nature gods) and the Aesir (who we usually think of as the Norse gods.) There is included a story about the battle, and how they made peace. He mentions all the lost stories about goddesses, that he’d have liked to have included. The sources he used and didn’t use.
And then there are the progression of the stories. He begins, with a creation story, of fire and ice, and of course ends with the end story of Ragnarök, which is also a beginning. All the stories are set in a mythical, setting, Midgard is Earth, where the humans (mortals) dwell, and Asgard where the Aesir dwell, a world where the light elves dwell, a world where the dwarves dwell, and one where the ice giants dwell. There are nine worlds. And no one seems to be able to stay in their own world. Which of course, causes many of the problems in the stories. The stories do run in a progression, from creation to a sort of ending of an old world. They can be read as short stories, or read as a longer narrative. One does lead into the next. Neil Gaiman called the stories a journey. And so they are, a journey to a culture long gone.
Friday Reads: The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff
I’ve had bad book luck lately. Even titles that have won fancy awards have left me feeling pretty unsatisfied. But The Comedians broke my streak—this is a fantastic book, strong enough to be considered the definitive work on the subject. Nesteroff starts off with comedy’s beginnings in Vaudeville and progresses through the radio era, comedy clubs and cable specials, & sketch comedy and variety shows. The title is not a rib—this is a serious, expansive history of comedy as an art form and business—and the treatment of the material might disappoint people who just want a laugh-a-minute romp. But they’ll be missing out if they skip this book.
The title is also not kidding about the “drunks, thieves, scoundrels” part. Early American comedy had strong links to seedy elements and there are numerous examples of that here—insult comics getting threatened by the Mafiosi sitting in the audience, people dying when cheap comedy clubs collapsed. Beyond its chronicles of actual violence, The Comedians also devotes a fair bit of time to the “crying clown” idea and prevalence of addiction in comedy. Some famous names come across as very broken people and a few emerge as basically forever-unhappy monsters. Some of your favorites might seem a little tarnished after you read it and The Comedians occasionally gets gossipy in a Hollywood Babylon kind of way. But, most of the time, it takes the high road and tells the story of the art form in a fun and engaging fashion. It does for comedy what David J. Skal’s epic The Monster Show did for the history of horror.
One of the most important things about the book is its championing of obscure comedians. Everybody knows the Marx Brothers and Joan Rivers, but it was great to learn about people like Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen, especially at a time when radio-era comedy is instantly accessible through sources like the Internet Archive. If a comedian is/was important, they’re almost certainly here. As I neared the end of the book, I was getting nervous that Andy Kaufman hadn’t been mentioned yet, but The Comedians came through for me. Because of the book’s massive scope, nobody gets tons of spotlight time, but you’ll finish this with a solid understanding of pretty much everything you’d ever want to know about American comedy.
Nesteroff, K. (2015). The Comedians Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. Pgw.
Hello to all the loyal Friday Reads review readers! I am aware that it is Monday, but apparently computers have proven to be my downfall once again. While I had a Reads scheduled to go out, it decided not to budge. Luckily, any day is a good day for reading, so Happy Monday Reads!
On to the review:
This review is for a book called Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews. I chose this book because I loved the series but the book cover barely represented the content of the book. If you will notice, the cover makes it look like a bodice ripper. It is not. There are some delightfully steamy moments (I have no shame), but the couple is fighting their feelings through most of the book. Throughout the whole book, they do not cling to each other with wanton longing like they do on the front cover.
Now let’s dive deeper into the book:
This is the first in a book series that was written by a married couple who go by the pseudonym Ilona Andrews. They are a fascinating couple, but that is a tangent for another day. Nevada Baylor and Connor Rogan are the couple (supposedly) featured on the cover of this book. The series is told from the perspective of Nevada who is a private investigator who runs the firm with her delightfully quirky family. Rogan is an irresistibly sexy multibillionaire with magical powers who
No, wait, come back! Okay, stay with me now here. He’s different from all the other irresistibly sexy multibillionaires. This series is set in a world where a serum was developed in the 1800s which allows people to develop magical powers. People can do anything from starting fires, to mind-control, to controlling the elements. It is awesome. The world dynamics shifted so that people with greater magical abilities have more political power than those who do not. Rogan is a Prime and Primes have the highest level of power. People fear Rogan, but women still want him to rip their bodices from their dainty shoulders.
Nevada is not dainty. She will punch you in the face if you try to rip off her bodice. And maybe do creative things to your nether regions. Hmm…that didn’t come out the way I intended. Did I mention the cover is not representative of the book?
In any case, the Andrews duo does some great world building and writes some delicious banter. Oh, the banter! I need a moment…
Okay, I’m back. I will leave you with these thoughts: I’m a librarian. I read everything. I was not afraid to pick up a book that looked like a paranormal bodice ripper. I have a soft spot for sexy werewolves. But this is more of an urban fantasy. There are no werewolves, vampires, witches, or anything like that. There are just regular, normal people who occasionally summon the power to chuck cars across the street.
If you like sarcastic and witty female protagonists and do not want a lot of sappy romance, this is the book for you. If you actually were looking for a book to match the cover on here, have I got some books for you…
Andrews, Illona. Burn for Me. Avon: New York, NY, 2015.
My favorite genre to read is historical fiction. I really enjoy learning something about history at the same time that I’m enjoying fiction. And occasionally, from within that genre, there comes along a book that makes the reader reconsider what they know about a certain period or event in history. The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, is an excellent example. For all that we know and have heard about World War II and the Holocaust in Germany, there is much we haven’t heard about how the rest of the German population survived during and after the war. The Women in the Castle tells us part of that story:
After Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns as a widow to the castle of her husband’s ancestors, now fallen into ruin after long years of war. Along the way, she follows through on a promise she made to her husband and others of the resistance: to find and protect their wives, also widows like herself.
Marianne first rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of a resister, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together they make their way across war-torn Germany to Berlin, where they rescue Martin’s mother, Benita, from life as a prostitute to the Red Army. Then Marianne locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees in one of the many displacement camps around the country.
As Marianne tries to create a family from the survivors of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that their previous lives, plus events that continue to bombard them as the country recovers, have complicated their perceptions with dark secrets that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually all three women must come to terms with the choices that they made before, during, and after the war – each with her own unique set of challenges.
If you enjoyed reading The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, or The Light Between Oceans, you will definitely enjoy The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck.
Friday Reads: “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill” by Candice Millard
Candice Millard, author of River of Doubt (2005) and Destiny of the Republic (2011), is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. Her latest book, Hero of the Empire, is about Winston Churchill and, like many previous biographies of the famous Prime Minister, it focuses on a specific period in his life—his participation in the Boer War (1899–1902) instead of on its entirety. Examples of other focused explorations include last year’s Masterpiece Theater premier, Churchill’s Secret. This drama is set during Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister, when the 78-year-old leader (played by Michael Gambon) struggled, with the help of his wife, to conceal a debilitating stroke and an incapacity to govern. The popular Netflix miniseries The Crown cast 6’4” actor John Lithgow for its version of 5’6” Churchill during the early reign of Queen Elizabeth, revealing the private relationship between a PM and a young Sovereign. Yet another biography is a 2010 documentary entitled Walking with Destiny, in which historian John Lukacs explains that “Churchill may not have won the War in 1940, but without him, the War most certainly would have been lost.”
In Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, Millard describes the bravado of a young man who both wants and needs to go to war in hopes of gaining medals and fame as capital for his future political career. Churchill agrees to be a war correspondent in South Africa’s Boer War, where the British were both overconfident and under prepared. When the train Churchill is traveling in is ambushed and derailed by Boer troops, Churchill calmly rallied British troops under enemy fire to clear the track and let the engine get away with the wounded. Most of the remaining British, along with Churchill, were captured. This was the first time in his young life he was not in control of his own destiny. It is his spectacular escape, with the help of several kind strangers along the way that helps him to become a hero who rejoins the British troops both as an officer and a war correspondent. In a 2003 PBS Documentary entitled Churchill, this entire story is recounted in one sentence.
With my interest in Churchill piqued by Millard’s book, and inspired to learn more, I ran across this intriguing quote from Pamela Plowden, the woman he was in love with before he married his beloved wife Clementine and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. She described Winston this way: “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults. You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.” This is where I find myself in the last pages of Millard’s text – having been introduced to a multitude of his shortcomings but also seeing glimmers of his many redemptive qualities. Certainly his charisma and masterful public speaking skills are shown throughout his life and his place in history is one to be both reckoned and respected.
What makes Millard one of my favorite authors is her ability to create a cinematic and fascinating description of events that ordinarily might not compel me and dialog that is on par with some of my favorite screen writers. One of her Amazon reviewers pleads for this text to be turned into a movie. As Hollywood frequently adapts books for cinematic creations, I would imagine Millard’s titles will most certainly be adapted and yet another actor will be cast to play this iconic man of history.
Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. New York: Doubleday, 2016
Many of the books I read are populated by strong female characters. Biography, science fiction, literature, mystery – all feature intelligent, feisty and powerful women. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception.
Set at an unknown point in time, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a woman named Offred. The story alternates between Offred’s current day-to-day existence and her memories of a past life. One with a daughter, a loving husband, and a fulfilling career. Now, Offred is valued more for her functioning ovaries than her intelligence.
Offred’s life shifted drastically because the United States no longer exists. In response to declining birth rates and civil unrest, a group of fundamental Christian militants overthrow the government. The Republic of Gilead, as this country is known, institutes a rigid social hierarchy and enacts laws inspired by the Old Testament. Young and healthy women, like Offred, are classified as handmaids and assigned to the homes of childless high-ranking government officials and their wives. Their job is to bear these men’s children.
Although the Republic of Gilead has stripped Offred of her rights, she refuses to give up. She finds ways to assert her independence by swinging her hips while walking or through unsanctioned interactions with men. Often, Offred risks her limited freedom by looking for people who may be able to help her escape from Gilead. Offred reminds us that rebellion doesn’t have to be loud. It can be quiet and slow-burning and still succeed in the end.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing as a series on Hulu.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.
After watching I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, I finally tracked down and read Baldwin’s much-referenced 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. This book contains two essays: “My Dungeon Shook—Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind.”
In the first essay, Baldwin endeavors to impart to his 15-year-old nephew the wisdom and advice he’ll need to survive growing up as a black man in America. Despite being “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being,” Baldwin urges his nephew to trust his own experience, to resist internalizing messages of inferiority, and to continue to love. And in a more sophisticated exhortation than our contemporary “Make America Great Again” slogan, Baldwin writes: “Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.” This essay actually served as inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, which took the form of a letter to his own teenage son. The tragedy, of course, is that such letters are still necessary.
The second essay, “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind,” is quite a bit longer than the first. In it Baldwin recounts his experiences with the Christian church during his youth and the Nation of Islam as an adult, seeing in neither a solution to the racial problems that infect America. Throughout, he offers an unsparing analysis of the problematic role race has played in the development of American civilization, “which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world…”
This essay is a demoralizing read because of how applicable Baldwin’s criticisms remain. “People are not, for example,” Baldwin writes, “terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.” And also: “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”
Baldwin’s writing is not without hope, but his is a bleak optimism–more philosophical choice than true faith. This perspective is powerfully captured in a 1963 television interview (“The Negro and The American Promise,” WGBH), in his response to a question about whether he is a pessimist or optimist: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” As he did in his letter to his nephew, in this essay he holds out love as the only way forward. But he makes clear that when he uses the word “love” he is referring to “a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Audio, 2008.
The Dinner, published in 2009, involves the relationships among two brothers, their wives, and teenage children. The story centers on a dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant. This dark and disturbing book unfolds steadily with unpredictable twists, pivots, and surprises. Paul Lohman, the narrator and one of the two brothers, offers caustic observations throughout the dinner. Here’s a sample:
“So when the bartender at the café put our beers down in front of us, Claire and I smiled at each other in the knowledge that we would soon be spending an entire evening in the company of the Lohmans – in the knowledge that this was the finest moment of that evening, that from here on it would all be downhill.”
The meal and conversation are frequented with disruptions and flashbacks. It is eventually realized that the purpose of the dinner is to discuss the two couples’ teenage boys and their involvement in a brutal and criminal act. The parents’ dilemma is the moral choices that must be made. The tragic incident has special consequences for one of the brothers, a popular and powerful politician with ambitions for higher political office.
Herman Koch, the author, is a Dutch writer and actor. His writing includes short stories, novels, and columns. His most recent book is Dear Mr. M: A Novel.
A movie based on the book was released in May 2017 with starring roles by Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, and Laura Linney.
Koch, Herman (2017). The Dinner. New York: Hogarth.
Every time I think about this book, I have to smile. That must be why I decided to review it for this edition of Friday Reads. It certainly wasn’t because everyone I know that read it loved it. Quite the contrary, most of my book group was indifferent or somewhat negative. But it’s a book that really got a lot of conversation going. And since I’m not the writer of the book, I prefer that to overwhelming acclaim.
The story is told in the voice of Mary Frances Lombard, who at the beginning of the book is twelve years old and growing up on a family apple orchard. As the narrator, her voice rings loud and true for a precocious teen growing up in an increasingly endangered, changing rural area. Since she speaks in the voice of a teenage girl—not an adult looking back on her teenage self—she isn’t always the most pleasant character. But what teenager is? Mary Frances is full of ideas and plans. And for a young person, she is inordinately concerned about her future. Will she be able to stay on the farm? Will her brother be her business partner? Will a host of relatives and interlopers take over and push them out? And in the short term, will she win the Geography Bee and travel to Washington, DC to represent the state and bring glory to her family and her beloved teacher?
Since Mary Frances’ mom is the town librarian, librarian readers of this book will find that some of it is quite familiar. There’s plenty of realistic library customers, circulation desk kibitzing, and even a library book cart drill team drama in the story.
The land is a real character in this book—beautifully drawn and complicated, described as stunning and romantic yet brutally conflicted. In this book, the characters take center stage. I loved watching them grow and change over time. If you want a hard-driving storyline and plot, this might not be the book for you. If you can sit in a foreign film and just watch the visual beauty unfold on the screen, forgetting to read the subtitles, then you might like this book. One thing is certain, the writing is so good that you might just be stopped in the middle of the page to ponder what you just read (e.g., p. 46: “Time, we could see, was beginning to run as if it were leading somewhere, as it had not exactly done when we were very small, time occurring back then only in bursts.”). I highly recommend this book, especially if you want lots of discussion at your book club.
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton, Grand Central Publishing, 2016
Review by Mary Jo Ryan
My original intention was to write about a big wave surfing book I recently picked up from my local library. This likely would have been more exciting than Raymond Carver. However, as I trekked successfully through 3/4’s of the big wave surf book (for me, this is an accomplishment), it soured. Maybe another day or another surfer. I’ve been looking for something on Kelly Slater, not only the most dominant surfer to date, but arguably the most dominant athlete ever. For those of you who like infographics, ahem, I mean data visualizations, check this one out – it’s among the best.
I picked up Call if You Need Me, a collection of short stories, essays, and book reviews by Raymond Carver, published posthumously, and finished the bulk of it on a rain suffused weekend, reading mostly while simultaneously standing and hopped up because of a neck injury. I skipped the book reviews within Call if you Need Me. Reading Carver is a lot like watching an episode of Mad Men. On the surface things seem quite normal and ordinary, but in reality that is far from the truth. Having read a few of Carver’s other works in the past, this is familiar territory, and the short stories in Call if You Need Me were interesting and easy to read. If anything, I’d say they were a little less miserable (and slightly less humorous) than Carver’s other works. The short stories are flooded with the imperfect, often despair ridden world we live in; a world many of us have experienced firsthand one way or another. There is a prevalence of alcoholism, divorce, and depression, but also humor, hope, and a sense of contentedness that we often lack. I enjoyed reading about the timeline of Carver’s life — writing short stories late at night out of necessity because he had two kids at a young age, being poor, his literary influences, childhood, and the eventual successful sales of his work. If you haven’t read any Carver, I recommend you give him a try. The fact that these are short stories (as most of Carver’s other works are) means that there is little investment on your part.
I recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, and it felt so appropriate for today’s current events. My more experienced eyes were able to read the novel on more levels, as well. You know the story: Dust Bowl farm family sets off to California for the American Dream, but something has happened to the American Dream. There’s a wide cast of characters with realistic strengths and honest flaws, and we get the perspective of all of them over the course of the book—and they’re so frankly written, their desires so plainly stated, that we can easily identify with them—we’ve all been some part of some of these characters, at some points in our lives.
This time around, I was much more able to appreciate the unusual structure of the novel—the narrative chapters alternating with the more lyrical, prose-poem chapters. (Try reading any of the lyrical chapters aloud—you’ll be stunned by Steinbeck’s mastery of language when you feel yourself convey the words.) Steinbeck’s use of the form reinforces the timelessness of the tale—the narrative goes on in a familiar linear fashion, but it exists in a shifting, multi-dimensional framework outside of time, which is just as authentic as the narrative it contains, or the narrative that contains it.
There is no space between the author and what the author wants to convey to the reader—Steinbeck is not holding back, or affecting disaffection, in an effort to entice you. He does not play it cool for one second in this book. You will never doubt where his head is at. This earnestness could come off as preachy or strident in less capable hands, but I never had that experience with this book.
And Steinbeck’s earnestness, about the Joad family and what they are going through, about their moderate dreams, and about why they can’t achieve them, struck me as very relevant to today. The novel is set at the crossroads of economic, political and technologic times that resonate soundly today. Stuff you thought we’d have figured out almost a hundred years later, you know. The idea that farming and food production had become so successful, so advanced, and that people still didn’t have enough to eat—it was shocking then, and it’s shocking today. Today it’s not mechanized farming that we are trying to absorb and normalize, but other scientific advances—like GMOs, and the question of who owns the machines farmers use in their fields, and who gets to decide what to plant, to name just a few.
The novel also addresses the dynamic nature of populism, and how it can be used for the power of the people, and how it can be used to divide people and keep them down. The parallels between political leadership and religious leadership are easy to see in the character of the doubting preacher. And we read how religion can be used to bring comfort and encourage love and acceptance—and also how it can be used as a tool to control others, or even to our own disadvantage.
You can see why the book won a Pulitzer Prize. (The Pulitzer is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, by the way.) Also by the way: we have this book in our book club kits, so if you’re in Nebraska, your library can check this book out for your book club. You’ll have some good discussions, I promise. Definitely last, but definitely not least in your discussions—what is up with that ending? There are a lot of ways to interpret it. It would be interesting to hear what different people in the group think about it.
I’ll sign off with an audio clip from YouTube of Woody Guthrie singing “Tom Joad,” because why not.
(There are a few other musicians with songs about Tom Joad—the character seems to have really struck a chord with pop culture. It’s a fun search to try and find all the songs.)
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.
I first encountered Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s work when I was shopping for a baby book, back in those pre-kid days when I could still leisurely shop. The pale yellow book I chose was quirky and funny, with just enough sarcasm to balance out the preciousness that is the first year of your kid’s life. (Amy created several guided journals, and she was also a prolific children’s book author; one of her better known titles is Duck! Rabbit!)
Her latest “grown-up” title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, came out on August 9th, 2016. On September 6th, 2016, Amy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She passed away just last month on March 13th, 2017.
I’d had this book on my to-read list for a while, and I wish I’d read it sooner. It is a follow up to her 2005 memoir, Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life; she comments that it was only appropriate to follow an encyclopedia with a textbook. It is a short, fast read, with lots of white space. The book was meant to be “interactive”; Amy offers a cell phone number readers can text, so that at certain points in the book you can send her notes and photos and maybe even win a freshly-baked pie. Texts sent while Amy was alive were kept and added to the book’s website.
Amy writes of moments, of everyday occurrences. She makes the mundane experiences we all have seem both hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. She talks of how fleeting life is and how, even if she were to live to 80, the number of times she could cut up an apple, or look at her children, wouldn’t be enough. There was no way she could have known, as she was writing those words, how small that number would become. There is no way for any of us to know, and I’m trying to remember that every day and live by her words: “Make the most of your time here.”
If you are already an “AKR” fan, tomorrow (April 29th) would have been her birthday. There is a Facebook group, #MoreForAKR, that you can check out if you’d like to pay tribute to Amy’s memory this weekend with acts of kindness.
Garvey is not interested in sports at all. He is interested in reading, science, and jokes, which his father does not value. His dad keeps trying to pique his interest in becoming an athlete and is not able to drop the topic. Garvey knows he is not an athlete but is not certain who he is. He faces bullies at school due to his weight and awkwardness. Finally Garvey’s best and only friend since first grade guides him to Chorus at school, where he finds his place and a second friend. His wonderful voice is valued and his confidence grows. Now his dad has something in common with him at long last, since many years ago he sang in a band.
This short, small book offers a heartfelt story about finding one’s place and uses a poetry form that may be new to many. It is told in tanka poetry which involves five lines with a particular number of syllables for each, and is explained at the back of the book. Spend a little time with Garvey and friends Joe and Manny to relive what it is like to be an adolescent again. You will leave content.
Grimes, Nikki (2016). Garvey’s Choice. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.
For Christmas a few years ago, I received two biographies by Wil Wheaton. Yes, THAT Wil Wheaton. Wesley Crusher himself! I also discovered his blog. And then his Twitter…and then Facebook. Makes me look like a stalker, doesn’t it? But no, I’m not. He puts himself right out there, just like the rest of us!
So, I started with Just A Geek: Unflinchingly honest tales of the search for life, love, and fulfillment beyond the Starship Enterprise. Wow, that’s a freakishly long title. We’ll call it Just A Geek from now on. It’s a collection of some of the posts from his blog, but with updated info and commentary by him.
Now, you may only know Wil Wheaton as an actor. But I’ve discovered that Wil is also a great storyteller. I started just reading his blog, jumping around seeing what he has been saying over the years. He is funny and smart and he can definitely make you all teary-eyed when he wants to.
My favorite part of Just A Geek is when Wil looks back on his old blog posts with a new perspective. Time changes things. He looks back and see events very differently. Sometimes he had to wait until years later to understand what was really happening. And other times, you learn that the real story wasn’t really told in the first place. Looking back on his life helps him come to terms with what really happened and share the truth with his readers.
Yes, there are some Star Trek stories in there, which made the Star Trek fan in me squee. And yes, he is quite the geek, another plus from the geek in me.
If you want to continue reading more stories based on his blog, he has continued them in two more books – Dancing Barefoot and The Happiest Days of Our Lives. If non-fiction or autobiography isn’t your thing, he also writes fiction. I recommend starting with The Day After and Other Stories, a collection of his short stores. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!
I am a boy-mom. (Or at least I was until we welcomed a baby girl into our house almost 2 years ago. 2?!? How is she almost 2? Wait… where was I? Ah, yes, boys.) I am inclined to fall in love with realistic fiction centered on boys, probably because I can see my own son living these adventures and learning those early-life lessons. I felt especially enamored recently with the 3 friends that narrate Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Topher, Steve, and Brand are 6th graders, finishing out their last year of elementary school.
Ms. Bixby is one of those rare teachers that is a “Good One”. She has a pink streak in her hair and spouts endless inspiring quotes, or “Bixbyisms”. She sees what’s special in each of her students and helps them to see it too. But Ms. Bixby suddenly takes ill and can’t finish the school year. When she has to miss her good-bye party at school, our three heroes decide to skip school and take the party to her in the hospital.
Each boy’s perspective colors the nature of their scheme. Topher, the artist and story-teller, is playing out a military-grade mission in his mind. Brand is determined to do for Ms Bixby what he never could do for his own injured father. And Steve is just worried about how much trouble he’s going to be in for ditching school.
Their quest is fraught with peril, as good adventures are wont to be, and the boys find themselves, and their friendship, put to the test. Will they be able to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves? It’s an incredibly moving story, both laugh-out-loud funny at times, and sob-inducing at others. This boy-mom highly recommends!
Anderson, John David (2016). Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. New York: Walden Pond Press.
A newly married couple move to Quebec for the summer where Kay works as an acrobat while Theo translates a French biography on Eadweard Muybridge (famous for his photographs of galloping horses and movement).
As the couple explores the city, they find an old toy shop with a wooden puppet under a glass jar that can be seen from the dusty window. Kay falls in love with the puppet and returns often to look at it, although the shop remains closed.
On her way home late one night, Kay hears footsteps behind her. Looking for shelter, she sees a light on in the toy shop and rushes inside without a thought.
The next morning, when Theo realizes that Kay never made it home, he starts contacting the police and the other members of Kay’s group of performers. Only Egon believes that something terrible has happened and together they search the city for any trace of Kay.
In alternating chapters with Theo’s desperate search, the point of view switches back to Kay. She’s been transformed into a puppet and now resides in the back room of the toy shop which is run by the “giants” who decide which puppets get to leave and perform. Kay and the other puppets, who have all been magically transformed over the years, can only wake between midnight and dawn. With her human memories fading more each day, Kay must learn to adapt to her new surroundings unless she can somehow escape with the one puppet, Noe, who still clearly remembers her past life or be rescued.
Based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this story is more odd/magical than creepy/horror. Slower paced, but well written and still a fairly short read.
In the mystery series “Death on Demand”, by Carolyn Hart, several women authors of the golden age are mentioned: Agatha Christy, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and our own Mignon Eberhart. But one author I’d never heard of was Mary Roberts Rinehart. So when an e-book edition of The Great Mistake, one of her titles, popped up on BookBub, I bought it.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Set in a small town called Beverly set near Town, it is large enough to have a hunt club, and Society. After some digging online, I discovered the book was published in 1940, but nothing of World War II, politics, or international tensions shadow this book. I was a third of the way through before I could clearly say, “well, we don’t do that anymore”. The characters are from all sections of society, and for the most part are treated very fairly. If anyone comes off looking churlish, it’s the homicide officer from Town, and of course, it’s part of his job, as the outsider. The main characters are all definitely rounded. There is a love story, but surprisingly enough for the time, it is low-key. The foundation of the mystery is built skillfully, adding to the suspense.
The main character, Pat, comes into “the big house on the Hill,” to be a secretary to the widow of the billionaire who built the house for her and her son. Maude, the widow, is a vibrant, attractive personality, and busy hostess in need of help for her parties and social responsibilities. And Pat is fond of her. Tony is the son, who runs the family firm in Town and at first they merely get on each others nerves. Pat never sets out to be a detective of any type, unlike many other main characters of mystery fiction, particularly cozy mysteries. She is meant to be more of a way for us to be a part of the mystery. The events of the story tell on her, as her employer falls mysteriously ill. Then a dear friend’s runaway & divorced husbanded returns for nursing for a terminal illness, (he says.) A mysterious figure is seen peering in a window, and a night watchman is mugged, stripped of trousers (& keys). The entire mystery is framed by remarks about writing the entire story down for everyone, which serves as a fine way to find out how the dangling threads are tied up. It all flows so well, the language enhances the story and never shouts out the time period. A smoother read in that regard than Christie.
Mary Roberts Rinehart, (August 12, 1876-September 22, 1958) was often called the American Agatha Christie. While she is considered the source of the phrase “the butler did it”, from her novel The Door, 1930, the writer never used that phrase in the book. She is also considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing in her book The Circular Staircase, 1908. She wrote novels, plays, short stories, travelogues, and was a war correspondent. With her sons she founded the publishing house Farrer & Rinehart, and served as director.
Far away from bike paths that lead to grocery stores that sell kale is Appalachia. It runs through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and some parts of Tennessee and the Carolinas, too. It’s mostly dirt-poor and the things for which it’s known—family feuds, coal mining, moonshine—seem to have little connection with modern life in other parts of America. These days, unless Appalachia is being mocked, it’s generally ignored.
Which is why it’s strange that this memoir has struck such a chord. It has been sitting atop the bestseller lists for months and has received coverage in tons of major media outlets. On its face, the story doesn’t seem to be widely relatable. J.D. Vance’s family originated in the hills and hollers of rural eastern Kentucky. He experienced the traumas that often shadow poor communities: drug abuse, outbursts of violence, and other self-defeating behaviors. But, unlike many, Vance escaped and prospered, eventually attending Yale and joining a San Francisco investment firm. Hillbilly Elegy reads like a gateway into the world of “Bloody Breathitt” County, Kentucky. But it also details the process through which Vance found a better life outside the region. The book is interesting as a depiction of an overlooked place, but it also works as a coming-of-age story.
And it’s getting talked up as a kind of Rosetta Stone that explains election results. The Times calls it “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election”. I’m not sure that I totally buy that. Appalachia is a pretty unique place. I don’t know how much you can port over its attributes to cities in the Rust Belt and so on. It’s worthwhile to examine a culture and community for its own sake, but if you’re just looking for national power brokers or explanations for electoral trends, Hazard, Kentucky might not be where you want to start.
Even if Hillbilly Elegy can’t provide pat answers to complex political questions, it’s still a good book that’s very affecting and ultimately inspiring. If you would like to learn more about the region, I’d recommend this book, as well as two documentaries. American Hollow focuses on the same area and lifestyle described in Hillbilly Elegy and Oxyana viciously captures the prevalence of drug addiction in Appalachian communities. It’s great that attention is being drawn to a part of our country that’s often been forgotten—hopefully, it will lead to some real change for the region.
Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis. New York: Harper.
Somewhere in Chicago right now there is a wizard named Harry Dresden. You might know him because he is the only professional wizard listed in the phone book: “Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment”. If you ever run into a werewolf, vampire, demon or other nasty creature of the night he is your man! Just don’t ask him to perform at your son’s birthday party because he is not a magician. That you would think that is just offensive.
Jim Butcher knows Harry the best. There is rumor that Harry is merely a product of Butcher’s imagination, but I refuse to believe that bit of blasphemy. I also believe in fairies and nothing you say or do will ever erase the twinkle from my eye.
In any case, Jim Butcher has written a series of books called The Dresden Files detailing some of the more notable events from Harry’s life. The first book in the series is Storm Front where we learn that “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face”. Sage advice. I must take moment here to point out that I have grown rather fond of my face and must thank Mr. Dresden for taking on said demon. My face thanks him.
I also highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of The Dresden Files because James Marsters is magical. Just in case you didn’t know this bit of trivia, James Marsters played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I heard Mr. Marsters as Harry I am pretty sure I swooned and melted. In that order. I was a full on puddle by the middle of the first book.
You may not be aware, but this review is in real danger of turning into a fangirl rave. But I am a professional so I will just say that Harry Dresden is a clever private investigator who likes to break tension with a perfectly timed one-liner that will have you tittering into your morning latte. If you like fantasy, P.I. stories, or have grown accustomed to your face, you will love Harry Dresden. Happy reading!
Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. Penguin, 2000.
Anjali Kapadia is in a bit of trouble. Her family’s business, a chic sari boutique named Silk & Sapphires in the heart of New Jersey’s Little India, is in financial trouble. In an effort to save the business from bankruptcy, her father has called on his entrepreneur brother, Jeevan Kapadia, to come and help. However, Jeevan has a reputation for being a bit of a dictator; he likes things done his way, or not at all. The idea fills Anjali with dread, but she will do just about anything for this business, which she helped build after the death of her husband ten years earlier.
When Jeevan arrives, though, he is not what Anjali was expecting, and he brings along a visitor he treats like a son. Rishi Shan is Jeevan’s partner in business, and has brought along some ideas that will radically change the small boutique Anjali has put her heart and soul into. What’s more, he imposes on Anjali’s life in a way that makes her wonder if she’ll lose her heart to him in the process.
The Sari Shop Widow is a lovely story that gives readers an insight into Indian culture and values. The need for Anjali to remarry is the underlying current throughout the novel, and the traditional values of her uncle and parents war with her mainstream American views of the world. Yet the relationships Anjali deals with are universal, so anyone, whether familiar with Indian culture or not, will enjoy the story.