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Archive for the ‘Quick read’ 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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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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PossibilitiesJust moments after I literally turned to my husband and whined, “This book is beginning to feel like a Lifetime movie,” the next page I read included these thoughts from the character Sarah St. John: “Makes me think of those movies on Lifetime… ” Even the author knows what she’s done! Still, I could not put the book down and truly wanted to know how everything would turn out, just like when I’ve found myself settling onto the couch to sit through one of those afternoon family films, intensified around some very focused topic like a teenaged girl with an abusive boyfriend. I very much enjoy Kaui Hart Hemmings’ style—The Descendants is one of the most entertaining novels that I had read in ages, with unforgettable characters and highly amusing dialogue, and I just prayed that it was not a one-hit wonder. I feel that Hemmings still has a lot of great storytelling in her! The theme, characters, their dialogue, and the setup for The Possibilities all had potential for achieving the same greatness, but, unfortunately, fell a little short of my expectations for this new novel.

I do not regret reading it, however, because sometimes I can truly relate to the Lifetime movie-type themes. In fact, anyone who has grieved when a loved one dies young knows the life-changing nature of such an event. We are invited into the mind of a grieving mother whose only child, Cully, dies in a tragic accident in Breckenridge, Colorado at the age of 22. We get inside Sarah’s head, all of the uncomfortable thoughts and judgments of others that bubble up in the wake of tragedy, how her life can never really be the same again, ever. She’ll probably even have to entirely change her career, since the tourist-industry television program she co-hosts in her resort hometown now feels so incredibly shallow. Grief removes one’s facade, the games we allow ourselves to play in order to get by, and suddenly every single aspect of our lives begins to filter through a new lens attached to us by the loss. Others certainly mean well, but they just can’t imagine how their words and behavior affect the one reeling in emotional stress. Sometimes, it’s the unspoken feeling that your grief trumps the heartbreak of a friend’s divorce or a young person’s seemingly trivial frustrations, and the occasional mistake made in actually mouthing your unacceptable thoughts out loud. You eventually feel guilty for withholding your friendliness, denying others their needs, and perhaps holding on to your grief far too long.

Something at the root of this story really strikes a chord about today’s society, single mothers, and the choices regarding pregnancy out of wedlock, as Sarah contemplates her past and deals with a new crisis brought on by the appearance of Kit, a young woman who knew Cully in the months before his tragic death. The main characters go on a journey together, a theme Kaui Hart Hemmings seems to like as a vehicle for bringing everything in a story to its ultimate truth and crux. The Possibilities was a book I had highly anticipated, and I will definitely be on the lookout for Hemmings’ next book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Possibilities

 

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jacket.aspxThis very satisfying debut fiction from a seasoned food writer was delightful to listen to on audiobook CD. Julia Whelan got most of the parts spot on, and even though deepening her voice for the male characters is a bit comical, the lively reading of Ruth Reichl’s intriguing tale and multifarious characters kept my daughter and me engaged thoroughly. She and I enjoy sharing many of the same books, especially adult titles that also hold appeal for teens. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Delicious! turning up among YALSA’s 2015 Alex Award nominees for books published in 2014—I hope, I hope!

Billie Breslin, also known as Wilhelmina to the Fontanari family, where Sal calls her Willie, feels fortunate to have landed a competitive position at Delicious magazine (obviously inspired by Gourmet, which discontinued in 2009 and was last headed by Ruth Reichl as editor). It doesn’t take long for Billie’s extraordinary palate to be recognized; she has the uncanny talent for detecting even the most obscure ingredients and flavors and has a knack for suggesting the precise tweak needed to perfect a recipe. Yet, she adamantly claims that she is definitely no cook! Her new friends in New York soon suspect she’s harboring some darkly saddening secret, however. Meanwhile, she’s determined to work her way into food writing, which she quickly and very cleverly accomplishes.

Delicious magazine closes down, but Billie is retained to handle customer service matters, working solo in the Timbers mansion, where she stumbles upon a secret room. Mysteriously secreted letters slowly reveal the details of a World War II correspondence between a 12-year-old girl interested in cooking and Chef James Beard when he was on staff at the magazine. We’re also provided with letters written in the present, diary-like words Billie addresses to her older sister. This partially epistolary read brings the reader deeper into the thoughts of our leading lady. The plot revolves around Billie’s collaboration with Sammy and Mitch to preserve the historic letters and library before it’s too late.

Some of the most remarkable characters in Reichl’s very clever and page-turning tale are those who are not actually in this story but mentioned in the letters and by the characters, the librarians who organized the forbidden library and the legendary James Beard. Along the way, readers will learn fascinating details about war-time prejudices and the history of culinary challenges during rationing. Readers will even be taken on an architectural history tour of New York and learn historical tidbits about the Underground Railroad. Delicious! is delightful, and it is so pleasing to see one of America’s food-writing favorites succeed as a novelist too.

Check the WRL catalog for Delicious!

Or check out the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan.

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jacket.aspxThis novel in verse reads smoothly like prose but with an economy of words that reveal only enough detail to get you into the moments, thoughts, and emotions of the narrator’s present predicaments. Memoir-like, it is so sincere that I couldn’t imagine it not having come from the author’s true life. The author indeed experienced challenges similar to those of the book’s main character, a teen girl named Lupita living in a Texas border town.

In fact, I read it under the impression that it was a factual memoir and didn’t even realize that I was reading poetic verse, probably because I first encountered the book in e-book format. I skipped performing the rituals of reading a printed book jacket, back cover, and title page, plus flipping pages to determine what the book might have in store for me if I were to invest my time in it. Even if I noticed that the book was written in verse when I checked it out to my e-reader, I had forgotten that detail by the time I began reading, and verse doesn’t necessarily appear as such when displayed digitally. Instantly, I got hooked into the voice and story of Lupita, and I became just as eager as she was to investigate household clues, trying to learn Mami’s secret. Once known, she becomes Mami’s ally and finds herself in a family role requiring maturity beyond her age, overwhelmed with yet responsible for the welfare of her seven younger siblings while Mami and Papi struggle with the crisis.

Reading Under the Mesquite provides an authentic internal view of an ambitious and promising young girl’s family life on the edge of poverty and along the blurred ethnic and physical lines bordering Mexico and Texas, USA. A glossary of Spanish words in the back of the book provides guidance to pronunciation, cultural references, and usage. This novel is highly recommended for adults, teens, and mature younger children interested in the family lives and struggles of Latino Americans.

Check the WRL catalog for Under the Mesquite

Or check out the ebook.

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