Tuesday, August 30, 2016

West of Eden by Jean Stein

  • THE BOOK
    • West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein
    • Published February 9, 2016
    • Other works by author include Edie: An American Girl (about Andy Warhol's protege) and American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (with George Plimpton)

  • THE PREMISE
    • An oral history of Hollywood/Los Angeles that features the stories of five people: Edward Doheny, oil tycoon; Jack Warner, movie tycoon; Jane Garland, the mentally ill daughter of a Malibu real estate tycoon; Jennifer Jones, Oscar winning actress and second wife of David O. Selznick, movie-producing tycoon; and the author's father, Jules Stein, founder of MCA (Music Corporation of America), ophthalmologist turned music tycoon.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I'm not a big fan of oral histories. The stories tend to contradict and you are only getting edited fragments of interviews doled out at the author's discretion. Thus the "author" is actually the interviewer with the exception of her comments about her own father.
    • If you have any interest in these particular five people and their families it would be easy to read the section that interests you without delving into the rest. It's more a glancing overview, not an in-depth look at any one subject. 
      • I recommend the library if you only wish to read about one person.
    • Recommended for readers who like stories about old Hollywood or tales of Malibu life.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  • THE BOOK
    • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
    • Published May 6, 2014
    • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 119 weeks through August 2016
    • Other works by author include one novel (About Grace), 2 short story collections and a memoir.

  • THE PREMISE
    • The story takes place before and during World War II. It tells about the lives of a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and a German boy named Werner. Their paths cross during the war when both end up in the town of Saint-Malo, a walled French city on the English Channel. 
      • A real place, Saint-Malo was almost totally destroyed by American and British bombing in August and September 1944, a few months after D-Day when the forces were trying to get the rest of the Germans out of France.
    • As the novel begins both characters are in different locations in the walled town just before the start of the bombings. Then the story goes back in time so we can learn how they both arrived there.
    • There's also a fabulous --- and possibly cursed --- jewel and the single-minded Nazi on its trail.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I really loved this book. It was a different take on World War II novels, so many of which tell stories related to the Holocaust and the Jewish experience. Those are important stories to tell and I have read several novels and non-fiction books on the subject: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief, The Reader, Maus, Sophie's Choice, and so many more.
    • But it was interesting to read a tale told from a different perspective, that of French people and their lives under German occupation. (Getting sent off to the concentration camps was also a threat over people who weren't Jewish.) It also covers the Hitler Youth angle when Werner gains admittance to a brutal school.
    • The supporting characters were fascinating and you root for both Marie-Laure AND Werner.
    • There is a satisfying ending in which the main story lines are wrapped up along with a jump forward in time, many years after the war.
    • Recommended for fiction readers, especially those who like stories about World War II.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Emma by Jane Austen

  • THE BOOK
    • Emma by Jane Austen
    • Published December 1815
    • Other works by the author: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Emma Woodhouse attends the wedding of her former governess and decides to continue matchmaking for others as she herself has no intention of marrying.
    • Two hundred-year-old spoiler: things do not go well in Emma's matchmaking attempts but all ends happily.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I have now read all but one (Mansfield Park) of Jane Austen's 6 novels. I will try to get to that one later this year.
    • I watched the 1996 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow last month and really enjoyed it. I've had the book on my shelves for years now and decided that I should read it while the basics of the story were fresh in my mind.
    • I also saw "Clueless", the 1995 film starring Alicia Silverstone, a couple of years ago but as a latecomer to the film I didn't love it. It was definitely cute though.
      • When it first came out I was a wife and mother, working full-time at a bank, with a 2-year-old son and a husband attending night school to finish his college degree. I was NOT the target audience!
    • Back to the novel, it was very good and I enjoyed it immensely. 
    • Emma herself is likeable despite her penchant for meddling in everyone's business. She means well. Her love interest, in his late 30s, seems to be waiting for her to mature before asking her to marry him.
    • The only character that really drove me crazy was Emma's father who was apparently a valetudinarian --- a hypochondriac who actually tends to get sick --- and who always refers to Emma's older sister and the newly married governess as "Poor Isabella" and "Poor Miss Taylor", respectively, because their marriages took them away from him. He seems much more selfish than Emma supposedly is. 
      • Emma would have been better off had her mother lived but then we wouldn't have a novel about matchmaking gone wild.
    • My Jane Austen novel ranking:
      • 1: Pride & Prejudice
      • 2: Sense & Sensibility
      • 3: Emma
      • 4: Northanger Abbey
      • 5: Persuasion (I should probably re-read this one as I have very little memory of it)
      • Unranked and unread: Mansfield Park

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grunt by Mary Roach

  • THE BOOK
    • Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
    • Published June 7, 2016
    • Other books by author: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; and several more.

  • THE PREMISE
    • This book delves into the science behind the armed forces. Necessity is the mother of invention and as modern warfare is more modern than ever, advances are still being made in equipment, medical techniques and soldier health.
    • There are chapters on fabrics, tank safety, noise and hearing, sweat, medical advances in reconstructing reproductive equipment (and penis transplants), diarrhea, sharks, submarine safety, sleep (or lack thereof) and several more.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • When you think of the men and women serving in the military you don't think about their equipment much. But so much of their safety and success depends on it in many ways.
      • Example: When a medic arrives to tend to your wound you don't want them running off at the first loud noise (fight-or-flight) so the medics need training in situations as close as possible to combat conditions.
        • Big city emergency rooms are a great place to do some of this.
        • There are companies that specifically provide this training, simulating everything except actual gunfire.
    • Ms. Roach researches her topics thoroughly (or as thoroughly as her relatively low security clearance allows her) and participates in many of the scenarios:
      • She acts as a casualty in the simulation for medics, for example.
    • Her writing is humorous and she has a definite style. 
    • One casual mention of a mess hall had me researching the person it was named after: the Dorie Miller Galley at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
      • A footnote mentioned that there were 23 things named for Dorie Miller (real first name was "Doris") but I had never heard of him. He was an African-American sailor who worked mainly as a cook in the U.S. Navy. He happened to be stationed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
      • Check out the Wikipedia article here. Chester Nimitz himself pinned the Navy Cross --- the third highest Navy award at that time --- onto Miller's uniform.
    • I just read an article the past day or two (link here) about how the use of cell phones by armed service personnel is possibly putting their safety at risk. No matter how many problems science solves for the armed forces, there are always more issues on the horizon.
    • A quick read recommended for those interested in the military's issues in these days of modern warfare.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lexicon by Max Barry

  • THE BOOK
    • Lexicon by Max Barry
    • Published June 18, 2013
    • Other novels by author include Company, Syrup and Jennifer Government.
      • Jennifer Government, which takes place in a future world where employees take the last name of the company they work for, sounds like fun. I may check it out from the library.

  • THE PREMISE
    • A teenager named Emily is recruited into attending a school where the students learn to persuade people based on their psychological category. There are over 200 categories. And "persuasion" is really just a euphemism for "coerce".
      • It's not magic they learn but the power of words. Various syllables put together in a string of nonsense words cause people to do the bidding of the poets, as school graduates are called.
    • Meanwhile, a man named Wil is attacked and taken on the run from poets who think he knows the most powerful word of all.
    • The two stories converge.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • A book with a school for gifted students is always a draw for me. In flashbacks we learn the backstory of both Emily and Wil. Sometimes these are confusing chronologically.
    • Words are like magic, there are narrow escapes and wild shootouts, the characters mysterious motives are revealed slowly and there's a love story interspersed among it all.
    • The ending is a tiny bit confusing and the character who causes most of the mayhem is somewhat of a cypher but overall I really enjoyed the book.
    • Recommended for those who like action-packed narratives with an almost magical element involved. 
    • When I wrote this post I accidentally hit "publish" right after I typed the title so there may be a fragment post somewhere on the Web.

Monday, August 15, 2016

London by Peter Ackroyd

  • THE BOOK
    • London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
    • Published October 2001
    • Other books by author include London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, Shakespeare: The Biography and Dickens. He has written over 30 books.

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is not a chronological history of London. It is more a cohesive series of essays on every conceivable topic related to London life over the past 2,000 or so years.
    • Place names, executions, fires, speech, neighborhoods, prisons, lighting, fog, prostitution, murderers, the poor, the rich, Cockney life and speech, government, clothing, ethnic groups, and so much more.
    • If one topic bores you turn the page and there will be a new one.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I read this off and on over two months. It was an easy book to dip into for a chapter or two before setting it down to read something else. It is a "skimmable" book in that you really can ignore what doesn't interest you. You don't need to read the beginning to understand the end.
    • Some parts were boring and some parts were gripping.
    • Recommended for people who want to know everything about the city of London. Again, it is not a history. Kings and queens are barely mentioned.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Anatomy of Evil by Will Thomas

  • THE BOOK
    • Anatomy of Evil by Will Thomas
      • Book 7 in the Barker & Llewelyn Mysteries series
    • Published May 12, 2015
    • Other books by author: The first six books in the series, all of which I've read.

  • THE PREMISE
    • The series takes place in London of the 1880s. The narrator is Thomas Llewelyn, 24 years old and assistant of Cyrus Barker, a private enquiry agent.
    • This particular book takes place in Autumn 1888 as Jack the Ripper strikes. Barker & Llewelyn are temporarily hired by Scotland Yard in order to find the killer.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • The case of Jack the Ripper has never been solved so I was curious how the author would handle the mystery for Barker & Llewelyn always solve their cases!
    • My library did not have a copy of this for the longest time and only had the first 4 mysteries in the system. I made a request but the library never tells you the result. You just need to keep checking the catalog. I thought this one might be interesting to readers in general because there is a large body of fiction dealing with Jack the Ripper.
    • I enjoy these books immensely. The characters are interesting and entertaining. They would make a wonderful TV series.
    • Recommended for those who like mysteries, especially those taking place in London, and for those who are interested in Victorian England.
    • Book 8, Hell Bay, is due out in October. The plot sounds reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. I'm getting ready to make another library request!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand

  • THE BOOK
    • The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand
    • Published November 17, 2015
    • Other works by the author include: Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies and Flight.

  • THE PREMISE
    • After World War II both Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother Bernard worked for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, Kurt in P.R. and Bernard as a high level scientist.
    • Bernard was instrumental in the cloud seeding experiments whereby it could be made to rain in the desert or stop a hurricane before it reached land. 
      • Because weather affects warfare the army hoped to use these methods too.
      • The book covers every detail of the cloud seeding experiment
    • Kurt had not established himself as a writer yet and GE offered a steady paycheck for a young married man with a new family to support.
      • In the war he had been a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during the firebombing of that town, staying safe by sheltering in a slaughterhouse. 
      • His war experiences along with his time in corporate culture affected the themes and topics of his novels.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I discovered Kurt Vonnegut while I was a high school junior. I read all the books our library had: Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Slaughterhouse 5, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I loved them.
      • I'm not sure how these books made it into a high school library. Breakfast of Champions includes illustrations by Kurt. For instance, he draws a large asterisk which is his rendering of an asshole. How could a naive 17-year-old resist?!
    • As I mentioned, this book covers every detail of cloud seeding. EVERY detail. At first it is pretty interesting --- you get to learn a lot about the famed scientists of the era --- but then it's just too...much...cloud...seeding...information!
    • This isn't a biography because it covers very little that happened before the war and very little that happened after the mid-1950s.
    • I enjoyed the book, especially the sections on Kurt, but you will definitely appreciate the brilliance of Bernard.
    • One sad fact: Kurt and his wife always joked they would have 7 children once they married. They had three. But then Kurt and Bernard's brother-in-law died in a train derailment accident two days before his wife, their sister Alice, died of cancer. Kurt and his wife adopted their 3 children. 
      • He ultimately adopted a 7th child with his second wife.
    • Recommended for fans of Kurt Vonnegut and everyone who wants to know how to seed a cloud. Also the book really delves into the corporate culture of General Electric in the 1950s. That part is fascinating.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

  • THE BOOK
    • The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
    • Published March 22, 2016
    • Other work by the author: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

  • THE PREMISE
    • The story takes place beginning in Summer 1914 in England just before the start of the First World War.
    • Agatha and her husband John live in a small town and their two adult nephews visit them often.
    • The nephews, cousins to each other, have diverse aspirations: Hugh is studying medicine and hopes to marry his mentor's daughter eventually. Daniel is a poet. Because they are both in their 20s we know they will somehow become involved in the war effort.
    • Beatrice, after the loss of her father several months before, moves to town to act as the Latin teacher.
    • All their stories and those of the local town folk emerge as war is declared and everything changes.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I really enjoyed the book. Small town England, historical fiction and some great characters make for an enjoyable read. I will add the author's first book to my list of "To Be Read"!
    • If you have watched "Downton Abbey" you will enjoy this book. The war starts in that show's second season. 
    • There are only a few titled people in the book --- they aren't the main characters like in "Downton" --- but you will meet members of the working and servant classes along with the landed gentry. 
    • Women will have a larger place in the world as the men go off to fight.
    • One character seems to be gay but as this was a crime in those days the subject is broached by the other characters delicately and no anachronistic acceptance occurs. Rather you see a healthy dose of denial. While sad this seems much more realistic for the times.
      • In "Downton Abbey" the character of Thomas is gay and the others are quietly accepting of it. 
    • Recommended for those who like "Downton Abbey" and fiction books about England.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

  • THE BOOK
    • The Girls by Emma Cline
    • Published June 14, 2016
    • First novel by author

  • THE PREMISE
    • A 14-year-old girl named Evie becomes intrigued by a bunch of dumpster-diving girls and gets caught up in their lifestyle in 1969 Northern California. 
    • She's especially intrigued by a 19-year-old named Suzanne who introduces her to Russell, the man who brought the group together to a ranch in the hills outside Evie's town.
    • Evie has a single friend whom she drops as soon as she sees Suzanne and her ill-clothed and ill-washed bunch. Her parents are getting divorced. They totally neglect her. Dad has moved to Palo Alto with his mistress and Mom is dating a succession of sleazy men.
    • The novel is a thinly-veiled telling of the Manson Family story in the summer of 1969.
    • There is also a portion of the novel where Evie is in her 50s and looking back on her story.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I did not like this book. If not for a couple of reasons I would have stopped reading by page 38.
      • Reason #1: It takes place in the town where I currently live, Petaluma, California.
      • Reason #2: I know the Manson Family story fairly well.
    • Apparently Ms. Cline lives in California but I don't know if it's anywhere near Petaluma. She got at least one thing wrong. 
    • She refers to Evie heading to town for the city's 110th anniversary. But there's a large sign at the entrance to town featuring the city logo, which is basically "Petaluma 1858". Let's do some math! 1969-1858=111, not 110.
      • Another possibility is the anniversary parade route which she has moving down East Washington Street. It's possible this was different in 1969 but Petaluma's annual Butter & Egg Parade has always gone down Kentucky Street, a short section of Washington Street (NOT East) and Petaluma Boulevard North (known as Main Street to natives). A small nit to pick.
        • Yes, Petaluma was once the "Egg Basket of the World" and we still have a zillion cows and chickens in our agricultural county. And almost everyone in town has been part of, or knows someone who was part of, a Butter & Egg parade. My old workplace had a float where we all dressed like chickens and danced the Chicken Dance for the entire parade. Thise were the days!
      • Another (not Petaluma-related) booboo occurs when Evie goes to the Aquarium in Monterey in 1969 even though the aquarium didn't open until the 1980s. 
    • The story is almost a direct re-telling of the Manson Family with the locations and names changed. Russell is Manson, down to the music career aspirations and the buckskin pants he wore. Suzanne is Susan Atkins. The fictional musician Russell befriends is a stand-in for Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. The group murders everyone at the musician's house (he's out of town like Polanski was when Sharon Tate died). There's a character just like Tex Watson, Manson's right-hand man. The list goes on and on.
      • My point is this: there was no true creativity involved since the author just took the story of the Family and rearranged the facts a bit.
    • Other readers seem to either love or hate this book. Some feel it's an amazing treatise on "how a young girl's life can go horribly wrong". 
      • There are still questions today about how such nice, and in several cases, well-off girls could have run away from home and joined the Manson Family. 
      • The thing is, you know from the beginning from adult Evie that her life didn't actually go terribly wrong although she always acted as if it had. She makes a point of telling us that all the books about Russell and his group never mentioned her (she was part of it for maybe a month).
    • One Amazon review comments that "it's like reading a diary written by a girl of that time". Here are some examples, which are like NOTHING I ever wrote in my diary:
      • "How she must have sat in the empty kitchen, the table smelling of the domestic rot of the sponge, and waited for me to clatter in from school, for my father to come home." Page 38
      • "Its pictures of genitally slick hams." Pg 228
      • "I could smell the memory of chewed meat." Pg261
      • "Even the pimples I'd seen on her jaw seemed obliquely beautiful, the rosy flame an inner excess made visible." Pg 112
        • Say what now? I beg to differ. Pimples are beautiful in no way, obliquely or otherwise. 
      • A 14-year-old girl would not write similes, metaphors and so on in her diary.
      • And the zillions of sentence fragments. And the use of the word "still". And the descriptions of everyone's breath, which are constant throughout the book. Still. What IS the "memory of chewed meat" exactly?! 
    • Another says "just being a girl handicapped your ability to believe [in] yourself".
      • Uh huh, but most of us don't run off to live in a filthy commune because of it. We stay home, shower regularly and write about "genitally slick hams" in our diaries. Duh.
    • Someone else commented, "The book contains explicit sexual-assault against an underage girl, and I am appalled that is included in the book."
      • Yep, Manson stand-in Russell has sex with ALL the girls ALL the time. This is part of the real Manson Family story too. Yes, the sex is explicit and yes, the sex is with an underage girl. She's not "assaulted" per se, but as a 14-year-old, it's rape whether she was willing or not. Legally a 14-year-old cannot give consent in California. 
        • Since this facet of the story happened in real life I don't think it's necessarily wrong to include it in the novel. (I realize that this is an extraordinarily laden topic but this is not the place to debate it.) Manson wasn't tried for statutory rape presumably because the murder charge was enough to imprison him. One assumes that they would have done so had the murder case ended in acquittal.
    • As you read you know murders are going to occur and you know Evie won't take part in them so there's nothing else to read this book for, unless you live in the town where it takes place, I guess.
    • Sorry Ms. Cline. I look forward to see an original work from you in the future.