Monday, April 30, 2012

Celebrity Memoirs and Musings

I don't read much non-fiction, but when I do, it's usually biographies, memoirs, or autobiographies of celebrities. Here are two of my recent reads.

Bossypants by Tina Fey is a New York Times bestseller. It was also featured on several  "best books of 2011" lists. A few chapter titles include: "Peeing in Jars with Boys", "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook", and "There's a Drunk Midget in My House".  I admit I have come late to the Tina Fey party, but I admire this woman who has made such a mark in a male dominated profession. In my opinion, Fey and her cohorts, including Amy Poehler, made SNL more woman friendly. This book is a hoot for anyone who likes Fey's humor. She discusses growing up, getting started in comedy, working for Lorne Michaels, and working with Alec Baldwin. "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter" is a stitch, and so true. This is a quick, easy, funny read. This is definitely a beach read. *If you are borrowing the book from the library, be careful of the sand and water damage that usually occurs when taking items to the beach. We don't want to have to charge you for damage (yes, I am a librarian to the core).*

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe was published in 2011. It chronicles his life, beginning with the early years before acting. Lowe name drops throughout this memoir, beginning on the first page with JFK Jr. I found it annoying after a bit, but looking back, these may be the moments that define his life. It was surprising for me to realize how many celebrities or stars he has come in contact with over his career. This memoir is a bit shallow. The best part for me was when he described in detail the making of the movie The Outsiders. The movie featured almost the entire male "brat pack" from the 80's.  He does not talk much about his stint in rehab or his recovery for alcoholism. In fact, when reading it, I had no idea that his drinking had gotten to the point where he needed rehab. One minute he's talking about partying, and the next, he's in rehab. If you are looking for a light celebrity read, I can recommend this one.

More to come with celebrity memoirs and musings in upcoming blog posts.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A different kind of crime story from Germany

Crime and Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach
My rating 4.5 of 5 stars

One of the great pleasures of reading detective fiction and true crime stories is to dwell for a while in a just and orderly universe where the guilty are punished, wrongs are righted and victims are vindicated. That's not a world that Ferdinand von Schirach or his characters would recognize.

Schirach is German, a criminal defense lawyer in Berlin, and his second amazing short story collection has just been published in English. If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he's the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, notorious as the first leader of the Hitler Youth and wartime governor of Vienna. The elder Schirach spent 20 years in Spandau prison for war crimes. His grandson, needless to say, has a complicated relationship with notions of guilt and innocence.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Back-to-the-Land Memoirs

It happens every year around this time. The yard is ready for summer, the garden is planted, the hops are strung: nothing to do but wait. Wait and dream. Dream about finding a little farm and an old Ford 8N tractor and ditching the suburbs for life in the country. An authentic, back-to-the-land, dirt-under-your-nails kind of life. I grew up in the country and should know better, but still I dream.

And I'm not alone. The past few years have seen an avalanche of books about people choosing to pursue a rural way of life that their grandparents or great-grandparents lived and that their parents were happy to escape. Here are three of my favorites:

The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
by Jim Minick

Minick and his wife, Sarah, are teachers who decide to become evenings-and-weekends farmers but quickly discover that farming is not part-time work. They set out to establish a pick-your-own organic blueberry farm in the Virginia mountains, and they succeed—eventually, and at great personal cost. The Blueberry Years is a cautionary tale, but it's at its best when Minick simply shows what extraordinarily hard work farming is and leaves the reader to make of it what he or she will. Read it as a memoir or read it as a primer on organic blueberry production; either way you'll see that clear plastic container of blueberries in the produce aisle in a whole new light.

Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting
by Michael Perry

Perry is a humorist, a sometime public radio personality, and that rarest of creatures: a farmboy who, having fled his rural roots, returns to farming. He's funny in a low-key, Garrison Keillor kind of way, but his stories are grittier, more earnest and unabashedly true. Coop is his third book, following Population 485 and Truck, and it picks up right where Truck leaves off, with Perry 40 years old and newly married. With his new wife and stepdaughter at his side, Perry begins the hard work of rehabilitating a dairy farm in the driftless region of central Wisconsin. The book is shaped by an obvious but mercifully unspoken paralleling of farming, marriage and parenthood. (Think "manure" and you're on the right track.) Perry is unsparingly honest but never queasily so, and Coop is by far the most tender of his books. It's well worth reading on its own, but I would recommend reading his earlier books first (they're short) if you can spare the time.

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball

Kimball is a single vegetarian thirty-something New York City party girl until a magazine assignment introduces her to an earthy organic farmer she can't get out of her head. Soon she's eating meat and loving it, and before you know it she's married and struggling to revive a defunct family farm in upstate New York as a carbon-neutral organic farm. If this sounds like a fluffy Sex and the City episode, be assured it's not. By chance or by choice, nothing is easy for the couple and genuine peril abounds. They come close to starving their first winter on the farm. And because Kimball's husband  refuses to own a tractor they buy draft horses and have to turn to their Amish neighbors to learn how to use and care for them. The Dirty Life would be insufferable if Kimball were whiny. But she's not, and every page is suffused with a pleasantly amazed kind of pride.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Crime is Afoot

An Uncertain Place: A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery by Fred Vargas

In London, seventeen shoes are found just outside of Highgate Cemetery. Normally this wouldn't be a reason for Commissaire Adamsberg, in town as the Parisian representative to a police conference, to take notice. These shoes, however, have feet inside them. Still, the feet are in London and there are more pressing matters across the Channel. In Paris someone has completely dismembered the body of a wealthy recluse. Not even the toes are found next to each other in this gruesome display. With these two scenes, author Fred Vargas sets off on a twisting traipse through logic, folklore, history, and murder.

Commissaire Adamsberg is an odd creation, seemingly neither altogether grounded in reality nor focused on the case. His inner world is described near the end of the book: "At every step, his thoughts rose and fell in chaos, as they usually did with him, like fish swimming up to the surface then diving back down." The novel takes its cues from Adamsberg, with conversations drifting from the important to the inane with regularity, and even the direst communication often ending with a joke. As chief of Paris' seventh arrondissement, he leads a team of inspectors who have worked together long enough to understand each others' strengths and weaknesses. They bandy ideas around and watch each others' backs, coming across as more than just characters on a page. Add to that the mystery itself, which, while crossing tides of history and myth, is still a traditional puzzler that can be solved with evidence given within the story.

The focus on the lives and interactions of the investigators working the case is similar to the work of mystery novelist P.D. James and her detective Adam Dalgliesh.

If you like literary mysteries, check out both of these authors.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stargazing with John Green

Review by Steve Thomas

"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal." – Hazel Grace Lancaster

When I was in college, a literature professor told my class that a book means whatever you think it means. If you can find evidence in the text to support your interpretation, then your interpretation is as valid as anyone else's, including the author's. Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose first person voice guides the reader through John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, would almost certainly agree, though she's more concerned about the ultimate fate of the characters in her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, than the deeper meaning lurking beneath the text. Fiction, you see, is supposed to give you endings; the circles are supposed to close. Hazel knows her own life won’t have a tidy ending because, at 16 years of age, she has terminal cancer (though an experimental treatment has given her more years than expected).

Monday, April 16, 2012

Oil of the Ages

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

I've been exploring the local farmer's market recently, coming home with vegetables I have no idea how to cook. When I look up recipes on the internet, they invariably include olive oil as the first ingredient. This is the lesson I have learned: Pour in some oil, mince some garlic, saute some onions, and you're in business. Alternately, just rub olive oil, salt, and pepper over whatever vegetable you have on hand, roast it in the oven for 45 minutes, and there's your side dish. It's a little spooky. Like a magic potion. How did I not realize that olive oil had such mysterious power before?

Because of these recent revelations I was thrilled to see Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil on the shelf. It begins with beautiful, sensuous descriptions of olive oil and its spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the culinary world. More than 4,000 years of history can be found in each bottle of olive oil. But what might also be found in those bottles is a deception. The story quickly turns to underhanded dealings and adulterated oils. Since the time of the Romans people have been trying to pull a fast one by mixing olive oil with various seed oils, which are cheaper to make. In fact, the author argues that most oil labeled "Extra Virgin" is nothing close. To truly meet that standard it must pass a rigorous battery of taste tests, which it rarely does. You can read in the book of the many small farmers trying to make a profit and stay honest in this cut-throat world.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Want werewolves? Move over, Twilight

Meredith is a fan of paranormal stories. As she puts it:

"As a librarian, my sisters hound me to death to always be looking out for good books to read. We all love different things, but we all agree we love paranormal fantasy novels. There are many types of “fantasy." Traditional fantasy fiction combines use of magic with other supernatural or paranormal phenomena, often in imaginary worlds. Paranormal fantasy, or urban fantasy fiction, are typically set in contemporary times that just happen to contain supernatural elements. Some urban fantasy novels are set in historical or future periods of time, but most of the novels are set in a city. Usually the main characters of urban fiction have had tragic pasts that tie into the plot development and have strong ethics with self-esteem issues. The narrative is usually expressed through first-person, so it feels like a friend is telling you a story. There are stories with clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys,” but sometimes, the story is not so clear cut."

What I like most about Meredith's feelings about paranormal stories:

"Real life is often depressing enough, so I like delving into the paranormal world where “good guys” kick butt, usually with a few laughs and feel-good moments thrown into the mix."

Paranormal fiction has been booming. I keep a toe in, but Meredith is the expert. As Meredith says, "wolves are noble, majestic animals. They are sociable and extremely loyal to their pack. There are many werewolf myths, but I enjoy the stories where the wolf still retains his humanity." 

Want more than Jacob and his pack? Here are Meredith's werewolf recommended reads.

The Mercy Thompson series: Mercy is a shifter (Coyote) that was raised by werewolves and flees her pack to be a teacher-turned-mechanic when she runs into a new pack, faes, and vamps. The focus is on the werewolves, with vampire/fae politics thrown into the fray. Also by Patricia Briggs: Alpha and Omega series

The next is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. Meredith says: 
"Kate has been raised and trained to fight evil and lives in a world where magic isn't constant. It comes and goes in waves and when it is on, technology doesn't work. She gets involved with a Were pack (different animals, not all wolves) and some necromancers who control these evil, creepy version of vamps."  

Request them here

Meredith will be featured in a few more posts regarding paranormal fiction. I'll be sure to pass along your comments. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Running the Rift, a riveting debut

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Review by Craig

Running the Rift, a wonderful debut novel by Naomi Benaron, follows the early life of aspiring Olympian Jean Patrick Nkuba as he grows up amid ethnic strife in Rwanda. Jean Patrick is Tutsi, the ethnic minority in majority Hutu Rwanda, but begins life with a fair amount of privilege. His family endures a devastating loss when he is very young, forcing him and his mother and siblings to live with his uncle, a relatively poor Tutsi fisherman. As a Tutsi, Jean Patrick encounters considerable discrimination and abuse. He is largely unfazed as he attempts to become a world-class short distance runner. But as Jean Patrick grows, so does the tension between Hutu and Tutsi throughout Rwanda. Although Jean Patrick's primary concern is strengthening his running career and his relationships with friends and family, he cannot avoid being drawn into the simmering politics of a country about to erupt in violence.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Old Reliable Author Turns Out an Uncharacteristically Comical Read

The Litigators
Review by Kathleen

John Grisham almost always writes about the legal profession and The Litigators is no exception, but it is a hilarious, often light hearted read with some serious moments thrown in for good measure. 

It is the story of Oscar Finley and Wally Figg, two ambulance chasers on the wrong side of the tracks in Chicago where they serve as the sole attorneys at Finley and Figg.  Finley and Figg have their squabbling down to an art, like a boring middle aged couple who have been together far too long.  Oscar has little energy and is a pragmatic skeptic and Senior Partner.  Wally, his Junior Partner, is a dreamer and an alcoholic, always thinking the firm is going to find the right case and hit the big time.  Wally sneaks behind Oscar’s back and advertises for divorces and DUI cases on VFW bingo cards and anywhere else he can think off.  Oscar is mortified by such behavior, thinking it beneath even Findley and Figg which is housed between a lawn mower repair shop and a Vietnamese massage parlor, though they tell new clients they are an exclusive “boutique” law firm.  The partners own their building which comes with a live in dog and a sassy over qualified African American secretary named Rochelle. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sisterly love

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very much."

Growing up, I would have loved a sister. Granted, my hair was never long enough to french braid, which is mainly why I wanted a sister. She would know how to braid hair, put on makeup, and act in all the plays I made up. And while I wasn't blessed with a "blood" sister, I am thankful to have a few girlfriends who are sisters to me.

The Weird Sisters is a story about three sisters who have been raised by their Shakespeare professor father and homemaker mother. When their mom is diagnosed with breast cancer, the sisters find themselves living together in the family home once more. The sisters, who each feel they have a defined role in the family, want to break old patterns, but they all have secrets. Each sister is looking for redemption for their past so they can move towards a future.

The book is filled with Shakespeare quotes (which the family uses to communicate). And the title is most likely from The Scottish Play, but I like to relate it to the band from the Harry Potter books.
(P.S. Look up The Scottish Play if you are confused) 

I really liked this book. The writing style and tone was different from my usual reads. It dealt with family relationships, learning from mistakes, and learning to like (or love) yourself despite your faults. Request it here.

If you enjoy books about sisterly relationships (blood and love) here are some other titles you may enjoy.

Tissue Warning!!!! The Last Summer of You and Me - Ann Brashares  
One of my favorite authors  Best Friends Forever - Jennifer Weiner
Strange, but interesting  Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger  
One of my favorite books that is not well known  The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - Eva Rice
(For those of you who like Broadway musicals, she is the daughter of famed lyricist Tim Rice)
Judy Blume for older readers Summer Sisters - Judy Blume

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 5, 2012

David Lodge's "Deaf Sentence" and the pleasure of browsing

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

The great thing about libraries and bookstores is that (for the moment, at least) they still have books. Shelves and shelves full of books. Actual, physical books with weight and substance, literal and metaphorical. Books that you can browse, books that you can hold in your hand, books that you can flip through and read a page or two here and there before deciding whether to read all the way through. Which is precisely how I discovered Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

Well, actually I was shelving. But you get the idea.

Deaf Sentence is a wonderful novel: wry, funny, tender, and devilishly smart. It's never smug or condescending, but it takes for granted that art and culture and philosophy are at least as interesting as sex and death and family strife. All of which abound in it, though in an understated, typically English way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading the "Great War" as it was lived

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
by Peter Englund

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

If historical fiction is your cup of tea, The Beauty and the Sorrow is for you. Don't be put off because it's a hefty work of nonfiction or because its author helps choose the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Beauty and the Sorrow reads like fiction and is gripping throughout. It presents the war as it unfolds through the eyes of 20 more-or-less ordinary people whose letters, diaries and postwar memoirs are the meat of the book. Englund provides necessary background and context, but the story is all theirs.

And this isn't the First World War you think you know. It's not all rain and trenches, incompetent generals and lambs-to-the-slaughter troops.Those elements are present, of course, but Englund takes pains to show us that the Great War was more than just the Western Front. It was a truly global war, one in which factories and railways were no less crucial than battlefields, and one that involved and affected civilian populations as none before.