Monday 29 December 2008

Graphic Nonfiction

Finished December 29
American Widow by Alissa Torres, art by Sungyoon Choi
This book is about Alissa's experience around 9/11 and the time that followed. Her husband was killed that day, his second day on the job at Cantor Fitzgerald. Alissa was seven months pregnant at the time. This book is very personal, telling us of Alissa's feelings, even when they aren't ones normally revealed publicly. It tells of Alissa and Luis and how they met and how Luis came to the United States. It tells of Alissa's issues with bureaucracy following the disaster and how she dealt with things as they blocked her way forward. It also tells about the human side of things, showing how some resented the help offered to victims like Alissa and others purported to offer help, but weren't forthcoming with the kind of help actually needed. Hopefully this is something that we can learn from.
Choi brings the words alive with her drawings and puts faces to the people Alissa writes of. I liked the inclusion of a few photos as well and found that they added to the story.
This is a story of tragedy and fortitude and a very human one.

Short Stories

Finished December 28
One Hundred and Forty-five Stories in a Small Box (consisting of Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape by Sarah Manguso, How the Water Feels to the Fishes by Dave Eggers and Minor Robberies by Deb Olin Unferth)
This collection of three small hardcover books in a box is a nice little set of stories. I particularly enjoyed those of Manguso, all of which were a page or less. I liked Eggers stories as well, but found many of Olin Unferth's too dark for my tastes. Short stories are a nice thing to read when you are busy doing this and that around the house as I was, and these are a nice collection, personal and with a sense of humour.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Myth Series

I recently read two books in the Myth Series that Random House has done.
The series consists of a number of books. The publisher asked authors to choose a favourite myth and retell it. A while back I read Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, her take on the Odyssey, written from Penelope's point of view. I should say that I actually listened to the audiobook and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the chorus bits.
This week I've read two more, and my parents gave me one for Christmas (and they didn't even know I'd been reading the series!)

Finished December 25
Weight by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson takes two myths here, those of Atlas and Heracles, and we see the story from both points of view. Atlas has been punished by the gods and forced to carry the world on his back. Heracles has been forced to work for another and made to perform difficult labours. Mixed into the story are man's exploration of space, Winterson's own baggage, and above all the story of choices. What do we really want and why? How do we figure it out? Winterson weaves it all together seamlessly and lets us see it anew. This is a wonderful retelling and I found myself going back and rereading bits of it based on later chapters. I especially liked the dog.

Finished December 26
The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber
This story relates to the myth of Prometheus and the gift of fire. It is less a retelling and more a story with a similar theme. Theo Griepenkerl is an academic visiting Iraq on behalf of a Canadian museum to offer money for rebuilding in exchange for loans of works of art and antiquity. When a bomb goes off in the museum he is visiting and the curator is killed, he finds scrolls that had lain hidden in a piece of art for two thousands years. Theo is able to translate them from the Aramaic and finds them to be another Gospel, written by an eye-witness to the last days of Jesus Christ. The publication of the translated work acts like the gift of fire in igniting mankind with many different emotions. I found this work less interesting and Theo a rather bemused naive man out of touch with reality until forced to confront it.

Monday 22 December 2008

Reading Analysis

Finished December 21
Why We Read What We Read: a delightfully opinionated journey through contemporary bestsellers by Lisa Adams and John Heath
This is an interesting read about reading. The authors looked at a number of bestseller lists for a ten year period and then looked at books by category and/or genre to see what it told them.
Some groupings were interesting such as good and evil in political nonfiction and adventure novels; and diet wealth and inspiration. The looked at commonalities between the popular books, trends, and what it said about American society.
The last chapter: Deciphering Da Code looked at the phenomenally popular Da Vinci Code and what it had that fed that popularity. It talked about the fallout from the novel and the other books that it spawned. Their interpretation of the meaning of this and what it says about the society we live in was fascinating and thought-provoking.
As a librarian I am interested in what makes different books popular and their analysis is food for thought in that area. After all, knowledge is power, right!

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Mix of Fiction and Nonfiction

Finished December 17
Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing
This is a fascinating book on Lessing's parents, Alfred Taylor and Emily McVeagh. The first part of the book is a fictional life of the two, where Lessing gives them different happier, yet not perfect lives. This is followed by an explanation where she explains what influenced her choices for the fictional lives. The last part consists of a number of chapters discussing Alfred and Emily's real lives and Doris' experience of them.
Alfred had wanted to be a farmer, but lost a leg in the first World War and had various ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder (untreated as it often was then) that came out of his wartime experiences. Emily was a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital and became a matron at an unusually young age. The two met when Emily nursed Alfred following his injuries in the war. After the war the couple went to Persia for a few years and then took a farm in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Lessing's issues with her mother have appeared in many of her other works, but she discusses them here as a generational issue, arguing in favor of women working. Lessing is open about her family, recognizing her own issues in the relationships, but also compassionate in reflecting upon her parents and the lives they ended up with. As she says in her forward, she hopes they would approve the lives she has given them.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Wide-ranging Novel

Finished December 16
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, performed by Nicole Roberts
This is a book that is hard to categorize. The main part of the story is contemporary, with Willie Upton returning to her hometown of Templeton after a disastrous relationship experience. On the same day she arrives home, the dead body of a lake monster surfaces on the lake the town is settled around. Her mother also surprises her with the news that her father is a local Templeton man who is not aware of his role in her creation.
Templeton is modelled on the town of Cooperstown, New York, and has much in common with that real-life place. One of Upton's ancestors, Jacob Temple, appears to be modelled on the writer James Fenimore Cooper, at least in regards to his writings.
As Willie researches her lineage, following the one clue her mother has provided her in terms of her father, voices arise in interspersed chapters, telling their stories. Some stories are told as voices from the past, some from letters, some from journal entries. All bring Willie new knowledge of her forebears and their secrets as well as solving town mysteries.
This is an amazing story, touching and emotional, but full of humour and intelligence as well. A great read.

Monday 15 December 2008

Mystery Series

Finished December 15
Our Lady of Pain by Elena Forbes
This is the second book in the series featuring Mark Tartaglia. Tartaglia is a detective inspector on a murder investigation team in London. This story begins with the discovery of a naked, frozen body in Holland Park. The body is arranged and the clothing is nowhere to be found. Tartaglia and his partner Sam Donovan are on the case and find it hard to get to know the victim, Rachel Tenison. Rachel seems to have been a very secretive person, and even her best friend doesn't know everything she was involved in. When a journalist makes links between this case and an unsolved one from a year earlier, the loose ends grow.
The case here revolves around personalities and relationships and, while there are moments of action, the greater part of the plot is of the people involved.
I like the inclusion of the personal lives of some of the police involved. It gives the book a good feel for me to see the whole personality, rather than just the workplace persona.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

More Canadian Fiction

Finished December 9
Holding My Breath by Sidura Ludwig
This book takes place in Winnipeg after World War II, and the characters are part of the Jewish community in the city. The narrator is Beth Levy, an only child. She grows up in a household where they are often other family members living, including her grandmother and aunts.
Beth's mother has aspirations to own a particular home and take a leading role in the Jewish community. Her aunt Carrie shares story of Beth's uncle Phil, who died in the war. Carrie alters clothes for women in the community, working out of the back room at Beth's father's pharmacy.
Beth's younger aunt, Sarah, is a rebel and a beauty. She doesn't follow what is expected of her and has dreams beyond their community. Beth is drawn to all of them for different reasons as she tries to find her own place, struggling against pressure to conform, but afraid to rebel too much. Beth is a clear voice here and the reader can see how she is influenced by the women around her.

Monday 8 December 2008

More Canadian Fiction

Finished December 7
What They Wanted by Donna Morrissey
This is a follow-up book to her earlier Sylvanus Now. This book concentrates on Sylvanus' children, Sylvie and Chris. Sylvie has been working out in boomtown Grande Prairie, Alberta following her university degree. She has come home to be with her family when Sylvanus has a heart attack, and old family tensions arise again, particularly between Sylvie and her mother.
When Sylvie returns to Alberta, Chris insists on coming along and finds a job on an oil rig. Both children feel the responsibility of helping their parents, younger brother Kyle, and their grandmother financially. Sylvie joins Chris at the rig as a cook's helper and the two find their way in the small community with its own tensions. Added to the mix are old family friend Ben, who Sylvie has always had feelings for, and his friend Trapp.
Morrissey really gets into the characters lives. We already knew that her knowledge of Newfoundland life was intimate, but she also shows the same intimate knowledge of life in the boomtown of Alberta and on the rigs. She also really gets inside Sylvie's head emotionally, and I felt Sylvie's emotions intensely throughout the book.
Morrissey just keeps getting better, and this book is a winner.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Cats and Libraries

Finished December 6
Dewey: the Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
This book follows the life of Dewey, a cat who was found in the library bookdrop in Spencer, Iowa one cold winter morning. He ended up living in the library and becoming beloved by not only the library staff and local community, but also by many from further afield.
Besides the story of Dewey Readmore Books, this story is also about the town of Spencer and its history and people. Spencer has survived difficult times in the past, including having a great part of its downtown burned down during the Depression. But the core of the community has stuck with it and created a vibrant tight-knit community.
The book is also about Vicki Myron and her family, their health issues, relationship issues and lives. Vicki had an intimate relationship with Dewey as the director of the library, one of the two people who found him, and the one who took him home over holiday periods.
The affection for Dewey comes through as does a sense of the kind of cat he was. Better pictures would have added to the book.

Friday 5 December 2008

Los Angeles Mystery

Finished December 5
The Overlook by Michael Connelly, read by Len Cariou, original music by Frank Morgan
This mystery features LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch in a situation that also brings in the FBI. When a body is found on the overlook near Mulholland Drive in Hollywood Bosch is called in to take the case. The victim, Dr Stanley Kent, is a medical physicist and his access to radioactive materials is what brings the FBI into the case.
There is some territorial struggle between the two law enforcements agencies, and Bosch's one-time lover Rachel Walling is one of the FBI agents assigned to the case. Guarding what little information he has that is exclusive, Bosch keeps his foot in with the feds.
The inclusion of wonderful jazz music is a nice touch and done at appropriate interludes. The mystery is a clever one and Bosch is an interestly complex character.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Novel of Recollection

Finished December 2
Testimony by Anita Shreve, performed by a full cast
This is one of Shreve's best and the performance did justice to it. The novel is centered around a private school in Vermont that has both boarding students and day students. The headmaster is given a videotape that shows sexual acts performed at the school by students. The girl involved in the acts is only fourteen. As the events unfold, they bring shame, retribution, punishment and loss to those involved.
The story is told by many characters talking about the event in the past, some as much as two years later. We see the aftermath first, and the actions that led to what happened later. How one moment can affect the futures of so many and forever transform their lives is something that comes through clearly by the end.
The voices ring true, perhaps because of the cast giving individual nuances to the characters. I wept with the characters, and found myself truly involved in the story.

Strange Teen Novel

Finished December 1
Being by Kevin Brooks
This is a very odd novel. The main character is Robert Smith, a 16-year-old boy who has lived in foster homes all his life. He goes to the hospital for an endoscopy for a suspected stomach ulcer, but the doctors see something that doesn't make any sense. Robert hears the conversation of the doctors from his anesthetized state and struggles to react.
Once he escapes the hospital, Robert is not sure where to go. He tries to make sense of what the doctors saw, even doing investigations himself, but doesn't understand what he finds. As he runs from those who are now pursuing him, he ends up with Eddi, a beautiful criminal that he isn't sure he can trust.
Robert is a lost soul, unsure of his past or his future. He doesn't know where to go for help or who to trust. This book offers a look at self-discovery with a twist.

Monday 1 December 2008

Teen Novel

Finished December 1
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, art by Ellen Forney
This novel is told by Arnold, aka Junior, a freshman at the Spokane Indian reservation. Arnold loses his temper when he finds his mother's name inside his textbook. It makes him angry that they are still using the same textbook that was used when his mother went to school there. This feeling and the encouragement of one of his teachers lead him to enrol in the town school, where the white kids go. Many on the reserve treat this as a betrayal and make it clear that his behaviour is unacceptable to them.
Arnold perseveres through the feeling of being a fish out of water in the new school, and begins to discover his strengths. As he moves back and forth between the white world and the Indian one, he feels torn. Arnold expresses himself through cartoons about his life and the book is peppered with these.
Over the course of the school year, he must deal with triumph and loss and discover what is truly important to him.
Arnold is a complex character, who grows over the course of the novel and the pull between the two worlds rings true.

Mystery Series

Finished November 30
Lost Girls by George D Shuman
This is the third book in the series featuring Sherry Moore. Sherry Moore is blind and has a special skill. When she holds the hand of a dead body, she can see what was going through their mind just before they died.
Here, she is asked to hold the hand of a dead man who died while coming down from Mount Denali during a storm. The hope is that what she sees will lead them to the other members of his party. She does see information that helps the searchers, but she also sees something that she can't just forget: a castle where women are sexually abused.
Sherry's friend Brigham gives in to her request and helps her make contact with those who might help her find information to make sense of what she has seen. The plot leads Sherry to Haiti and a large-scale criminal organization.
The theme of human trafficking is a gripping one, and Shuman has based the information in the book on the reality of this terrible phenomenon. The story is well-told and the victims are given a voice that rings true.