Sunday, November 17, 2013

Don't Miss These Great Books!

So, even though I haven't been posting lately, it doesn't mean that I haven't been reading. Everytime I finish a book that I particularly like, I swear I'm going to take some time to write about it but the reality is that it never seems to happen.  These are books that I have really enjoyed for the past few months and would like to pass on to you.  Do not miss them!

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Travel to Italy for this one.  Its about a young man who runs a small hotel on a tiny island town in Italy.  A famous film star comes to stay and sets the story in motion.  The author takes us back and forth between the original (1960's) visit and the present day as we find out about the visit and its consequences.  For all you artists, there's a wonderful set of paintings in a grotto that makes an appearance.  Magical. Liked this one far better than I expected to.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
You can't pass a Hiaasen book by without a quick read.  His books are always fun and silly and well told. This one doesn't disappoint.  Strange characters, a pet monkey, a severed leg and a fishing boat.  What more can you ask for.  Also makes a great gift book because Hiaasen's characters are so approachable. Everyone likes a good laugh.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
I wasn't sure what to expect from Ozecki this time.  I read one of her books years ago and liked it. Her's are always great stories that usually take on a world problem or societal issue.  The one I read was about the meat industry.  This one was not so cut and dried. This, her newest, was written up in a book magazine I subscribe to. It is a thoughtful and sometimes jarring look at Japan teen culture and the after affects of War. An American writer living off the coast of Washington, finds a plastic bag with a box of childhood mementos, a WWII kamikaze watch and a diary in it.  She thinks its trash that has made its way to America from Japan after the tsunami.  We follow her journey to find out about the girl, while reading the teenager's diary and learning of her troubling and difficult life in Japan.

The Interestings by Meg Worlitzer
I absolutely loved this book.  I was sorry that it had to end.  In the 1970's a group of teenagers meet at a summer camp for artistically gifted kids and become fast friends when they thought it not possible to do so.  We follow their lives through college, marriage and kids through to their fifties with all the twists and turns of relationships and success.  Its a magical book that, as a child of that era I could definitely relate to.  Everyone who became teenagers in the 70's, graduated college in the 80's and is in their fifties now should check this one out.

Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Here's a quirky one.  I thought this was going to be a little light and fluffy, but in fact it was so not the case.  Bernadette lives in Seattle.  Her husband is a Microsoft wunderkind and her daughter, a gifted 7th grader. As a reward to her daughter, the family decides to take a trip to Antarctica, a place her daughter has asked to visit.  Bernadette is a funky, anti-establishment mom who disappears on the ship.  I loved her character and could totally understand and relate to her.  Anybody who thinks to outsource the help she needs to organize and run her life to a service in India is cool with me.  Funny, quirky, lovable and poignant.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

Reading behavior is a funny thing. Some people read several books at one time or others only read mysteries or historical novels.  I have one friend that reads the ending right away and then works from the front and back, finally meeting in the middle to finish the book.  I tend to read in themes.  I read one book at a time, but I find myself reading book after book based on a common theme.  A few years ago I went on a sea voyage binge.  For about six months I read lots of sea voyage fiction.  It was really fun to learn about those early seamen (and women) who braved unbelievable odds and little knowledge of the earth to travel the world.  Somehow in my bingeing and bias against nonfiction, I missed In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick.  Boy am I glad I found it this spring.  What an adventure!

I've read Philbrick before (Mayflower) and found him really engaging and interesting (for a nonfiction writer), but this book was especially good.    In the Heart of the Sea is an account of the Whaleship Essex, a Nantucket whaleboat that was stove in by a rogue sperm whale in 1819 and sank in the South Pacific.  Its crew inhabited three lifeboats and survived, drifting on the open sea for over 90 days.  Its story is the one that inspired Melville's Moby Dick.  The story is told from the point of view of the ship's cabin boy who wrote a little known account of his adventures. Philbrick used his account as the basis for the book.  Its a harrowing tale of the whaling industry, survival and how people live with the consequences of their actions.

Philbrick is a Nantucket sailor himself and an obsessive researcher.  His breadth of knowledge on these subjects is amazing.  The detailed accounts of the Nantucket whaling industry and the inner workings of life on a whale boat were fascinating.  Coupled with the explanations of how the human body reacts to starvation and the psychological musings about why the participants acted as they did, Philbrick transports us into a story of cowardice and bravery, ego and intellect.  I am always intrigued by the human spirit and how it beats unbelievable odds to survive, especially 200 years ago when modern technology and scientific information was all but nonexistent.  The fact that these people were bobbing around the oceans of the world with little or no reliable navigation with little to live on for years at a time just boggles my mind.  Its amazing to me that anyone came home, with or without whale oil.  

As a career wildlife educator, I was leary of how the wholesale killing of our largest mammals would sit with me.  I surely wasn't anxious to read about the slaughter of these critically endangered species, and, yes, it was hard to imagine the process, but Philbrick was careful to tell the story of the whales as well.  I learned quite a bit about pre-whaling population numbers and behaviors and why sperm whales might behave as they do. Little is known about these reclusive animals today so the information that he was able to uncover was very interesting. 

As I thought about this post, it struck me that late summer is a time for one last beach book before life begins again in the fall and an sea adventure story is a great choice.  Usually I get bogged down in the factual details of nonfiction but this book read more like a novel and less like a text book. I had fun thinking about my friends who would enjoy it - those fishermen or sailors who would be intrigued by the tale as much as I was.  I know its a good nonfiction book if I keep prodding my husband and telling him what I'm learning.  Let's just say, his arm is sore.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

I have a friend who is always talking about the cosmic.  She's truly interested in the big questions...why are we here, have we been here before, what are we supposed to do while we are here?  Her perspective is always thought provoking, often enlightening, and always makes me stop and think about the big picture. Kate Atkinson's new book Life After Life is like that too.

Life After Life is a look at what happens when young Ursula Todd figures out that she has been reincarnated over and over during the course of her life.  She realizes that she can change her life events and those around her as she makes choices about her actions and life decisions each time she's reincarnated.  Set in England, in the years spanning Pre-World War II through the 1960's, the story takes Ursula from birth through old age and plays life events over and over as she changes her actions, therefore changing the outcomes. Interesting premise.  

I love Kate Atkinson.  I've written about her before.  She is a great storyteller, wry and fun to read. Her characters come to life and resonate with readers.  She describes settings and atmosphere so well that you really feel as though you are there.  She's one of the few writers that I will buy in hardback and I have never been disappointed with the results.   

This book was a bit of a challenge though.  I imagine Ms. Atkinson plotting her story on a big bulletin board memory map to figure out what happens and why.  The board would be filled with post it notes and index cards connected with string - like something out of a movie about obsessed murderers.  I imagine her process this way because that's the only way I can think that she could keep track of all the characters and plot lines in the book.  As I was reading it, I felt as if I had to do the same in order decipher how the story fit together.  About midway through, I had gotten so turned around that I almost went back and started over, but then decided to just go with it and let it play out.  While the timeline of events and how her reincarnation worked doesn't totally become clear, I did get the sense of how Ursula's life could take many different turns depending on the choices she made at critical junctures.  It made me think back about how my life would be different if I had made different choices.  It got really interesting when Ursula became aware of her past lives and began to make those choices consciously in order to avoid danger for her and her family.  What would you change if you knew in hindsight how your life would change given your actions?  What would you avoid?  How would you position yourself to influence the future?  

Its because of these thought provoking questions that I think this book will be popular with book groups. Atkinson is posing a pretty cosmic question with this book and is challenging her readers to think, telling a good story all the while.  Its also why my friend should read it.  She'd enjoy the mental gymnastics it takes to think about such a thing.  And while its a little murky on the why, when and how, I enjoyed it too.  

If you want to think more about this and other cosmic subjects...meaning of life, why are we here sort of stuff, then check out my friend's blog. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Phantom by Jo Nesbo

Like mysteries and crime stories?  Don't miss Phantom by Jo Nesbo.  He's done it again, a wonderfully gritty, well crafted mystery with terrible bad guys and a troubled but lovable detective.  This time he's taking on the international drug trade, the Russian mob and addiction in its most flagrant form. 

Nesbo is a lot of fun to read, but not for the faint of heart.  I've reviewed his work before: check out The Snowman and The Leopard here.  This, his newest installment of the Harry Hole series is just as good.  I always give his books to my husband who is a Nesbo convert.  He devours them in about 48 hours and then passes them on.  Whether you are in need of a gritty and gruesome Norway mind vacation or a chance to flex your deduction muscles, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Its not that often that you come across a book that is just fun to read.  Its interesting and well told, doesn't require changing your mind about anything, you are transported someplace else, and there's no serious violence or controversy to make you cringe.  Its just a great story told by a talented author.  The Art Forger is just that book.

B.A. Shapiro lands us in the cut throat world of the high end art business where talent is king and ego is the name of the game.  We follow Claire, a young struggling artist who has been wronged by the gallery set and is asked  by an influential owner to copy a notorious painting for good money and a one woman show at his Boston gallery.  The painting was one of the 13 stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 in a now infamous and unsolved case where the brazen thieves dressed as police officers broke into the museum in the middle of the night, tied up the guards  and stole $500 million in paintings.  Among the paintings was a Vermeer, two Rembrandts, five Degas drawings, and a Manet.  Claire, who has been copying paintings for an online copy house, has become quite good at copying Degas, and is asked to copy his After the Bath II.  Aiden, the gallery owner assures her that there is no way for her to get in trouble, as he is poised to sell the copy to one of his Mideastern collectors and will return the original to the Gardner.  What follows is an intricate story of art and forgery, complete with detailed painting techniques, dusty archives, secret rooms and the FBI.

What makes this book so much fun is the details.  The story is well crafted and interesting.  Shapiro has really done her homework and understands Claire's world of pigments, chemicals, collectors and ambition.  She has obviously studied the processes that forgers use to copy great old works of art and how they negotiate the art world to be successful.  She certainly knows a whole lot about Degas and his painting techniques, Isabella Gardner and her collection, and the heist that remains perhaps the most famous unsolved art theft in history.  All that detail supports a great story with a likable but somewhat naive character who finds herself plopped right in the middle of a dark and dangerous world of international art forgery.

This book could have been light and trite had a different author had the helm.  I am intrigued with books about art and artists. I've read quite a few, and many come off as simplistic; the starving artist, the powerful gallery owner and the bad guys who are always on the fringes of any market that deals in millions. Without the detail and the insider's view into a mostly closed and interesting world, the story could have been just another art book, but in fact Shapiro made it believable.  She is deft at creating complicated characters that move in unexpected ways. Plot twists engendered great suspense with a big payoff in the end.  Most art books are written about the New York City Art world.  I think an unintended consequence of writing about the Gardner heist is that, for once we're reading about Boston, a new twist on an old theme.

Coincidentally, as I was beginning to read The Art Forger, the news came out that the FBI thinks that they have identified the thieves in the real Gardner Museum heist.  While they won't reveal names at this point, it is thought that they have ties to Whitey Bulger and Boston Irish mob.  Even having identified the criminals, they have yet to actually recover any of the stolen paintings. Thirteen years later, the case is still considered unsolved.

I wouldn't say that The Art Forger was a deep and meaningful novel.  It didn't change my life or tell the great American story, but it did engross and entertain me for a few days.  When I finished it, I turned to my husband and said "Boy was that fun!".  If you're reading for entertainment, then what better way to feel when you read the last page.  Bravo Ms. Shapiro!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

True Confessions:  I love Barbara Kingsolver.  I love her stories, her characters and her subject matter.  I buy her books in hard copy when they are first released.  Her novel "The Poisonwood Bible" is among my top ten books of all time.  I even loved "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", her collection of essays about the joys of eating close to home and supporting local farms.  I love Barbara Kingsolver.  With that in mind, I'd like to have loved her newest novel, "Flight Behavior" but I really didn't.

When I bought the book I was so excited to read it.  Its about a young mother in the mountains of Virginia, who stumbles upon an environmental disaster waiting to happen.  Monarch butterflies that usually famously overwinter in the mountains of Mexico, suddenly change their roosting place and move to the Virginian mountains instead.  Scientists gather in a race against the weather to find out why they have moved, sure that snow and freezing temperatures will kill off what they believe is the entirety of the North American monarch population before they can breed and start their migration back in the spring.  The small town where the woman lives is turned upside down as the media, the scientific community, and a host of monarch spectators descend upon the mountain.  Enter a mysterious and exotic scientist, in laws from hell and a sweet but simple best friend, and the story takes off.  The woman is transformed by the butterfly happening and soon finds herself at a crossroads in her life.  Those of you who know me would immediately think that I'd have this book perched on the top of the pile of books eagerly waiting the opportunity to read it.  But in fact it was a chore to finish.

Kingsolver likes to explore social issues in her novels; Native American parentage, missionaries in indigineous culture, environmental and political issues to name a few.  She is outspoken about social change and for that I applaud her.  She has a science background and her husband is a biologist by trade, so environmental issues like climate change are no great stretch for her.  But here's where it went wrong for me.

Flight Behavior is pedantic and preachy.  Her characters are cutouts of real people and their story just doesn't ring true for me.  I felt like Kingsolver took a speech that she or her husband gave about climate change, with key points and issues, and crafted characters to say her words and illustrate the points.  She hit every one. Her characters are stereotypical and their words sound as if they are parroting what the scientific community is telling us about the issue. Not that the message doesn't need to be told, but I would expect a more creative treatment; one with more finesse than what Kingsolver gave us.  In the telling of the story, the local mountain folks are painted as dumb hicks from the back country, an (I'm sure) unintended consequence of the stark contrast between locals and the scientific elite. Frankly, her portrayal of these people was depressing and sad.  Reading it each night proved to be a downer, not an interesting and enlightening experience.

Now, for the record, I am an environmental education professional in my real life, so I have heard the climate change rhetoric for years.  I know the key points and have taught about the issue for the better part of 30 years in one form or another.  So maybe reading this book felt a little like a bus man's holiday for me, but I was saddened to think about those that don't believe and needed to hear the issue spelled out, because I think they got a school house lesson thinly veiled as a novel.  Even the end was not as satisfying as it could have been.  I'm not sure that this approach is one that will entertain people and take them on a ride that will help them understand and change their views, but will give them the feeling of being hit over the head with a two by four until they get it.

Come on Barbara, teach if you want, but don't put away your beautiful storytelling skills while you do it.  They are what engender more understanding than a lecture.  You're better than that.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

I was going to write about another book today, but when I sat down to do it, I couldn't remember the title, just that I didn't like it much.  So I decided that it wasn't really worth writing about if I couldn't even remember the title not 3 weeks after I finished it. 

Instead I wanted to tell you about another book that I read a few weekends ago.  Someone Knows My Name is an epic tale of Aminata, a young African girl who is kidnapped from her village in 1757 and sold into the US slave trade.  She survives the grueling trip aboard a slave ship to be sold onto a South Carolina indigo plantation.  Eventually she is bought by an indigo inspector who takes her to New York City where she eventually escapes and hooks up with abolitionists who take her to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and eventually to England to testify in Parliament against slavery. 

It’s a gripping tale.  I started it on Saturday morning and by about 1:00 that day I was already to page 104.  I didn't want to put it down.  Aminata’s life is interesting and action packed and tragic and reads a little like an overview illustration of the slave trade and practices that were so abundant in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was a topical book to read during February when we celebrate Black History Month. 

The story is simply written and well drawn so it moves and reads easily.  In fact if not for the blatant violence and somewhat lurid sexual overtones, it might read a little like a Young Adult novel. Imagine “Roots For Girls”.  It was a fun read, something to lose yourself in on a cold rainy weekend.  Even with all the history I've learned and the historical fiction I've read, I was introduced to some new parts of the slave story and gained a new insight on what that journey would have been like for a young woman. 

After the Revolutionary War, the British Government offered those black people who fought or supported their side, the opportunity for freedom and a new start in Nova Scotia.  Runaway slaves and freed blacks were registered in the Book of Negroes, a registry of sympathizers and, with the promise of land ownership, were systematically sent by ship up the coast to Nova Scotia to start over.  Of course the promises were never really fulfilled and the land and climate was such that farming was virtually impossible, so many came back or moved elsewhere.  A group of British abolitionists convinced some of those who were disillusioned to travel back to Africa and begin a colony in Freetown Sierra Leone, right in the backyard of the center of the slave trade.  Its not hard to imagine why that wasn’t such a good idea.  Aminata’s life chronicles these footnotes of history and gives a voice to those who made these amazing journeys. 

My only complaint with the novel was that Aminata’s story is a little coincidental. Some reviewers likened her character to an 18th century Oprah.  She’s just a little too talented and fortunate.  She reads and writes, can translate two African languages, is a talented midwife and healer, speaks well in public, can set type and edit, keep books and write law and survives four long ocean voyages. She even is the scribe for the Book of Negroes.  There’s really nothing she can’t do.  But then again, her story is meant to be extraordinary. 

What struck me as brilliance is the level of detail with which Lawrence Hill writes Aminata’s story.  He must have employed an army of researchers to fact check every detail that lends the color and atmosphere to the book.  He really knows his stuff.  Son of two Canadian civil rights activists, Hill has the perspective and understanding of his subject matter that comes from being around it his whole life.  He is a talented storyteller and understands how to hook a reader and keep them interested throughout the whole book while learning something along the way.

So on these cold and rainy March weekends, give yourself a treat and pick up Someone Knows My Name.  Light a fire in the fireplace, curl up on the couch with some snacks and a warm drink and dig in.  You won’t be sorry you did.