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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

LoverWhat are books all about? No, not the plots, but the culture of books and readers. Are the books we choose a shortcut to our identities via our fantasies and fears? Are they instruments to demonstrate our superiority or to hide our inferiority, raise our children by, choose our friends with? If anyone’s qualified to take on these questions, it’s reader / blogger / tech geek / woman-about-town Lauren Leto.

In a series of short essays, Leto writes about testing new romantic prospects by taking them to bookstores, or by starting a conversation, and laments that the growth of e-readers makes it impossible to cover-snoop. (Barry and I used to do that at airports to pick out the librarians. Not for romance, mind you, but to see if 50 Shades of Grey went with the shoes.) Where you read what you read is another clue, as are the books and tchotchkes you’ve got on your bookshelf. And how you handle challenges from readers you don’t know – lie about reading the book? make a snarky comment dismissing the author as a hack? try one-upping the person until one or the other reveals themselves as a reading fraud? – is as important as the literary quality of your actual reading.

Leto’s writing is fresh, funny, and insightful. She is unabashed about her enjoyment of fun books, but maintains focus on the kinds of books that people who talk about books talk about. Along the way, we get some great ideas for our personal reading lists, and quite a few cutting one liners about both literary wunderkind and bestselling popular authors. (The whole book is copyrighted, but if you memorize a few and trot them out at your next dinner party, Leto probably won’t catch you. Any fair use attorneys out there?) There are entries that can make you puff your chest out one second and ponder the hole in your soul the next if you don’t follow Betty Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading, and secretly cheer when you don’t follow Orr’s Corollary to the First Law. Best of all, there’s a clarion call to change the reader’s mascot from the lowly worm to a higher form of life.

Like most collections of comic essays, these are best taken in chunks to maximize the laugh value. Some are short enough that you can read several at one sitting; others long enough that you can read comfortably at one sitting. Either way you take it, Leto’s reading life is mirrored by everyone who comes across this blog. Read it and have a blast.

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veniceIt’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.

That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.

Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours.  On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)

There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.

There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing

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turowIt’s a little known fact, but the vocalist for one of the big-name bands out there also has the greatest chops as a legal novelist. And with Limitations, which the New York Times Magazine graciously published in serial form, he shows that he can even take on the novella as a frame for his characters and settings.

Limitations brings readers back to Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which has been likened to Chicago, but with a smaller-town feel. It also revisits two earlier characters – attorney George Mason (Personal Injuries) and Chief Judge Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent, Innocent).  Mason is now a judge on the Court of Appeals and is discovering that wisdom does not come with age and experience.

He’s also discovering that the black robe does not render him immune to the outside world: his wife and valued counselor of more than thirty years is under brutal therapy for cancer, he’s facing a tough re-election, and someone is sending death threats to his office and home computers. Mason wants to be frank with Patrice about his legal and political dilemma, but also wants to withhold from her messages he thinks are from a crank. Can he tell the complete truth about one and deceive her about the other?

The case he and two other appellate judges are facing is also brutal – an African-American teen was viciously raped by four white fellow students. One recorded the whole scene, but none of the people he showed it to reported anything for several years; the girl, who had been unconscious during the attack, didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the rape until the police showed her the tape. Four years after the crime, the rapists are tried and found guilty, but are appealing because the statute of limitations has passed. Or has it?  That’s the question Mason must face.

There’s a more profoundly personal element to his dilemma, something that hearkens back to his own confused and frightened youth, and he believes he must reconcile that memory before he can proceed to make his judgment. But the death threats become increasingly specific, and may be coming from a powerful underground figure with the power to carry them out.

Turow explores the various shades of Limitations through one man’s life and work without drawing a giant arrow to each one. And while the story comes to a resolution, it isn’t limited to a neat wrap-up. It isn’t as involved as some of his longer books, but is a satisfying read nonetheless.

Check the WRL catalog for Limitations

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flandersAugust 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders.  The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.

Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.

The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.

I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century.  Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders

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good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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Vertigo42Martha Grimes has come a long way since she started a series of mysteries named after English pubs. Her latest Richard Jury mystery is named for a champagne bar atop a skyscraper that overlooks the London financial district. While stretching the definition of “pub,” and sporting a cover that looks like a city crime thriller, the story offers the same mix of tragic, wealthy victims and eccentric rural Brits that have made Grimes’s books so popular for years.

Quite a few characters have been introduced in the course of 23 books, and the ones who weren’t Inspector Jury’s love interest have mostly survived to feature in later books. Grimes’s latest books are like a roll call of characters, each of whom seems to have wandered in from a different genre of mystery. Richard Jury, handsome and melancholy, lives in a darker, psychological mystery series where most people die, especially women he admires, and terrible things happen to children; reluctant aristocrat Melrose Plant evokes the golden age of wealthy amateur sleuths with butlers; while the crew of hangers-on in the town of Long Piddleton and Plant’s dreadful American aunt seem like they’d be comfier in a cozy mystery with tea shops and talking cats. But Grimes throws them all together along with movie references in affectionate nods to all kinds of mysteries past.

The movie reference in this case is obviously Hitchcock’s dizzy thriller Vertigo. For an old friend, Jury agrees to look into a very cold case: seventeen years ago, the friend’s beloved wife “fell” down a stone stairway, or so the police concluded at the time. It does seem suspicious that her death mirrored an even earlier tragedy, when a bossy, unpopular child at a birthday party “fell” into an empty pool on the same grounds. And while Jury is mulling over these incidents, a woman “falls” from a tower in the surprisingly crime-ridden environs of Long Piddleton, involving Melrose Plant and the usual suspects who hang out at the local pub. Jury and Sgt. Wiggins trace the survivors of the fatal party, and a depressing lot they are. But are they murderers?

Check the WRL catalog for Vertigo 42

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Duke Duke DukeFirst of all, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight is a fantastic name for a romantic heroine, even if it doesn’t lead you to expect a happy ending.

Izzy Goodnight’s father was the author of a beloved series of children’s stories set in a fictional medieval kingdom. But since her father died, leaving nothing but debts, Izzy’s real life is no fairy tale. Her purse is empty when she receives notice of a surprising bequest: her godfather appears to have left her a castle. And when she arrives to take stock of the new real estate, uneasily situated in the middle of nowhere, her ownership of the castle comes as a surprise to the duke who is already living there.

A scarred, snarling misanthrope with his own problems, Ransom William Dacre Vane doesn’t remember selling the castle at any point, and he’s unwilling to move out, as he needs a cold, bat-infested castle for brooding purposes. You can’t properly hate mankind in a rose cottage, can you? Not one to back down, Izzy strikes a deal with the duke: he will pay her to act as his clerk; she will sort through his piles of unopened correspondence in hopes of settling the legal status of the castle. Her duke-infested castle.

This lighthearted romance is roughly based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” That’s never been one of my favorite fairy tales, as it requires the hero to waste so much time insisting he’s a monster— so I was actually pretty relieved when the LARPers showed up. Yes, I picked this title out of a stack of historical romances because it contains 19th-century cosplay, a band of fannish role players who are starstruck to meet the Izzy Goodnight of the Goodnight Tales and who spend their spare time re-enacting medieval romances.

Written in a breezy, conversational style, this is a romance for pure escapism. All the gothic elements, the isolated castle, the bats, and the apparently brutish lead— so brooding!— are played for laughs and to surprisingly sweet effect. There’s a sneaky undercurrent of modern references, too (“The threat is coming from inside the castle”), that let you know this story is all in good fun.

Check the WRL catalog for Romancing the Duke.

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