Books 44 – 53

Books 44 – 46 – Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a book my mother read a couple of years ago.  She recommended it highly and a copy is in my house.  Then I saw it was available as an audio download from the library.  Flavia is an 11-year-old girl in England.  Her mother has died, her father is rather broken and her two older sisters are completely horrid.  Flavia is a scientist with an actual laboratory in the house.  And she solves mysteries.

The audio narrative is good, the mysteries don’t suck and Flavia is charming.  So I read two more in the series.  By the second book, the mystery was still pretty good but the sibling rivalry with her sisters had run thin so I hope it peters out in the next couple of books.  And Flavia vs. the police department is at least funny, if not entirely believable.

Book 47 – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

This was a pick for my book club, and I really enjoyed it.  Oscar is nerd.  Lives in New York with his mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and sister.  There is a multiple point of view thing going on, even as the narrator is a semi-interested outsider.  I remember three things that we talked about: first that there are plenty of times that Spanish phraseology crept into the text.  I understood enough to appreciate them, but not everyone in the group felt the same.  Second: Oscar’s mother seems like a horrible, horrible person for most of the book, until you reach the piece from her perspective.  I had wished that perspective came earlier in the book, but I concede that might’ve wrecked the effect.  Third:  between this and The Time of the Butterflies, the DR seems like a really frightening place.

I’ll be looking for this author again.

Books 48 and 49 – Those first two Gillian Flynn books

I am not sure if Gillian Flynn is so wildly popular everywhere, or if Chicago has embraced a native author, but people are rabid over her stuff.  Dark Places and Sharp Objects were packaged as a two-in-one for download from the library, so I went for it.

Dark Places is right.  The plot involved a young woman whose brother had been convicted, partially on her testimony, of murdering her mother and two sisters when she was…five or so.  Twenty five years later (and still convinced that he did it) she is short of cash and accepts “assignments” from a cultish sort of group looking for evidence to exonerate him.  The solution was..odd, but good enough and the ride was great.

Sharp Objects had me going for awhile.  And mad about it, too.  Two young girls have gone missing in the heroine’s hometown.  As she is a reporter, she is sent to cover it.  Oh, and her sister died when she was young, she has a very young half sister and had a cutting problem so bad that there are words carved into every inch of her body.  The solution seemed terribly obvious, but there was just enough of an even more sick twist at the end.

Interesting (to me) note:  When I first rated these on GoodReads, I had Sharp Objects at four stars and Dark Places at three.  With the passage of time, however, Dark Places seems like it was the better book.

Book 50 – Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin

A sort of historical fiction from the point of view of the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland.  Apparently the story was taken from a whole lot of gossip about Lewis Carroll.  It was engaging at the time, but I am already over it.

 

 

Book 51 – The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

A lady recommended this to me at a Project Linus gathering, and it was available in audio from the library.  It is mostly a coming of age novel, masquerading as a baseball novel.  It was a slow burn but the tension built to the point that I had to quit the audio because the narrator was too slow and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I checked out a hard copy to finish it.

Without giving anything away, one thing I remember is rooting for every. single. character. to get what he or she wanted.  I loved that.

Book 52 – I Suck at Girls, by Justin Halpern

The Sh*t My Dad Says guy writes a book that is exactly what the title says.  I don’t remember the exact exchange, but there was one where I was listening and walking down the street and laughing out loud like a crazy person.  I an not-able-to-breathe way.  And I played it over and over again.

 

Book 53 – One more Deborah Knott book, by Margaret Maron

It was called Three Day Town.  You know you are running out of ideas when you have your characters from one series meeting the characters from your other series.  But it was fun.

 

 

OK, I am tired of this already.  I think I have about a dozen more to go.  Later.

 

Books 37 – 43

Book 37 – City Boy, by Herman Wouk

Was meant as a sort of Tom Sawyer for urban kids.  Herbie Bookbinder is the chubby, smart, teacher’s pet of a kid.  Aged..11ish, living in the Bronx in the 1920’s.  The story goes from the end of the school year through a summer at overnight camp.  The adventures are rather far-fetched, but  suppose that was also true of Tom Sawyer.  It was a pleasant enough read.

 

 

 

 

Book 38 – Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

The book that doesn’t want you to know what it is about before you start reading.  A couple and their young son are on a vacation in Africa – trying to save their marriage –  when something really bad happens.  Told alternatively from the point of view of the wife and the teenaged girl that was also caught in the really bad.  So we have First World Problems colliding with actual Third World Problems and the choices that people make.  Sometimes it was a bit much.  For example, what kind of lunatic would go back to the scene of the really bad thing?  But I was so caught in the tension that I stopped the audio book and picked up my real copy so I could read faster.  That always says something.

 

 

 

Book 39 – The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I heard somewhere that this was supposed to be a sort of Harry Potter for an older crowd.

Well.  The characters are in college.  Our hero is never entirely convinced of his own talent, and so neither was I.  The twist was another world..sort of like Narnia.  A series of children’s fantasy novels that happened to exist.  It was an interesting premise, but it seemed to take forever to get there.  It felt like..the Origin Novel and the first adventure were crammed into the same book.  I liked it, but it took an awful lot of investment.

 

 

Book 40 – Revolutionary Characters, by Gordon Wood

I am pretty sure I heard of this book during that Academic Earth course on the American Revolution.  The subtitle was, “What made the Founding Fathers different?”  The answer, if I remember correctly, was that they did such a good job of creating an egalitarian republic of merit or whatever that they ensured another Revolutionary Generation would never happen again.  The “Revolutionaries” being the very small, very elite and hyper-educated ruling class.  Obviously, we could argue this one.

It is written in a series of profiles of the usual suspects, and includes Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr, which I particularly enjoyed.

 

 

 

Book 41 – The Marriage Plot – A Novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Dude that wrote Middlesex.  The title comes from the study of 18th century English novels that our heroine takes on in college.  I remember thinking, while reading, that I must be over the college-age novel because I didn’t love this or The Magicians or I am Charlotte Simmons, which were so popular with the book club types.  I give this one some points for portraying bi-polar disorder  in (what I understand to be) a realistic way.  That is by far the best reason to read this book.

 

 

 

Book 42 – Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden

The author wrote a charming history of her grandmother – a New York society girl of the 1910s – who went to Colorado with her best friend to teach rural kids in a two room schoolhouse.

It was my souvenir book from Jackson Hole.  I found it in Local section of the little book shop on the town square, so I just pretended that it took place in Wyoming.

 

 

 

Book 43 – In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The family is that of Ambassador Dodd, an academic that really just wants to write his book on the Old South or whatever but took the assignment anyway.   I really liked the side stories of the people whose paths crossed the Dodds, but the Dodds themselves were tiresome at best and downright unlikable at worst.  So I felt like I was slogging through what I thought would be a page-turner.  However, Larson sets the scene of tension increasing to terror extremely well, which makes the book worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

Book 36

I have a lot of other books to log, but there was a passage from this one that I don’t want to forget.  So:

I have been sort of meditating on the concept of happiness for awhile.  Personal fulfillment and the meaning of life or whatever.  One of the perils of not having children is that the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my life?” is not a no-brainer.

I don’t have the world’s best life, but it has been ridiculously privileged so I have come to the conclusion that it would be an insult to the Whatever High Atop the Thing to fritter it away being cranky about my utterly first world problems.

Gretchen Rubin started The Happiness Project with a similar line of thinking.  Married with two kids, in Manhattan, professional writer, functional relationships with the families and solid friendships.  But she too often felt irritable or guilty or insecure – and that she didn’t spend enough time focusing on the great things in her life.

Yeah, Hello!

Rubin spent a year reading books and trying different things and coming to lots of conclusions.  Common themes involved Act the way you want to feel and Making others happy will make you happy.

True and True.

She was very systematic about the whole thing and made a whole lot of resolutions with varying degrees of success.  There were several times in the book where I just wanted to slap her, but really?  I can’t judge.  I totally get the being irritable over nonsense.  You should see me on Palatine Road about 4pm.  Every damn day.

So good on her for recognizing and trying to change this thing she didn’t like about herself.  And Holy Good for putting it out there where the judgy people are going to judge.   Anyway, this was the passage:

“…We nonjoyous types suck energy and cheer from the joyous ones; we rely on them to buoy us with their good spirit and to cushion our agitation and anxiety.  At the same time, because of a dark element in human nature, we’re sometimes provoked to try to shake the enthusiastic, cheery folk out of their fog of illusion – to make them see that the play was stupid, the money was wasted, the meeting was pointless.  Instead of shielding their joy, we blast it.  Why is this?  I have no idea.  But that impulse is there.”

I don’t know that I am ever going to be a Joyous Person, but damned if I am going to be the one to suck the energy and cheer from those that are.

Another Reading Update

Book 27 – The Red House, by Mark Haddon

New one by the guy that wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time.  Matriarch dies and the middle aged son decides his family should re-connect with his sister’s family by spending a week together in the country.  It was ok.  Of the three Haddon books I have read, this was the least engaging for me.

 

 

 

 

Book 28 – The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Matriarch has cancer and three adult sisters come home to “be there” for her.  Except that each has her own reasons and her own secrets and I didn’t realize how very book club formulaic this was until just now.  College professor with an awesome fiance who doesn’t seem to want to leave her home town.  Ever.  New York career girl caught up in the glam until she is caught embezzling.  Flower child floating along on the breeze until she finds herself knocked up.  But it wasn’t a bad read.

 

 

 

Book 29 – American Lion – Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

Jackson is not at all my favorite president.  I get the historical significance of his presidency.  Humble beginnings and the War of 1812 and all that.  I just kinda think he was an ass.  And I seem to recall – from another history – that Davy Crockett also thought he was an ass.  So there.

Jackson seemed to prize personal loyalty above all things, which rather disgusts me.  While I had heard about the Petticoat Scandal before, I hadn’t known that he banished his niece and nephew (hostess and personal assistant) from the kingdom because the niece refused to include someone in her reindeer games.  Seriously.

I remember thinking that my favorite observations of Jackson were those of John Quincy Adams.  No surprise there.  And then thinking that I really ought to visit The Hermitage sometime.

 

Book 30 – The Little Book, by Selden Edwards

Middle aged American from the 1980s finds himself in 1897 Vienna.  Pretty much all I needed to know to read this one.  In 1897 Vienna our hero, Wheeler, runs into his favorite teacher from boarding school, then a very young man.  Then he meets his father – who died at the hands of the Germans in WWII.  So Wheeler and Dad are lost in time together.

I don’t love time travel stuff as a rule.  But when I read it, I am most interested in the world in which time travel exists.  What are the rules and who gets to do it?  Wheeler’s father, Dilly, said that he was being tortured by the Germans and tried to sort of Think of a Happy Place or whatever and landed in 1897 Vienna.  Well, that must have been the moment of his death in 1944.  So how did Wheeler get there?

The book didn’t quite give me all of the answers that I wanted, and I am not at all sure that we needed the insert the grandma storyline.  But I really enjoyed reading this one and will probably read the sequel (or prequel or whatever) if it lands in my lap.

 

Book 31 – The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Next novel from the guy that wrote The Shadow of the Wind.  Not as good, but it is written in the same world and has a lot of the same feel.  it is a bit of a mess in that the mystery doesn’t resolve itself well.  This is partly that the hero is half crazy, so there is the element of “can you trust the storyteller?” as experienced in Drood, an earlier read this year.

I understand there is one more book in this “series”, and I am sure I will get to it.

 

 

 

Books 32 – 35 – More Deborah Knott novels, by Margaret Maron

Now Judge Knott is married with a stepson.  In one novel, the ex-wife is murdered.  Convenient.  Now the stepson lives with the newlyweds creating more familial subplots.  While I generally prefer subplots with the brothers, the kid isn’t too terribly distracting.  These four books caught me up to the plot of the Christmas novel I read last year, so I have one book left in this series.  Until Maron writes some more.

Reading Update

I was going to catch up on my book posts.  Then I decided not to bother..I’d just make a list at the end of the year.  Then I remembered the whole point of blogging about books was so I’d have some specific thoughts down in writing to reference later.  Which I actually do sometimes.  I’ve read some good ones lately that are already starting to fade.  (Sigh.)

Book 17 – American Shaolin, by Matthew Polly

Book Club pick.  Ivy League student goes off by himself to study kung fu with Chinese monks.  In China.  For God’s sake.  It is far more coming-of-age and far less spiritual journey than I had imagined.  There are some interesting insights into China circa-1993, but I found the descriptions of the kungfu training and competitions really tiresome.

 

 

 

 

Book 18 – The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Incredibly cinematic story about a travelling circus created to house the long-term competition between two young magicians.  The world was imagined very well and the love story of the competitors was even half plausible.  It is a bit of a slow burn and requires some patience.  At the same time, it is so easy to visualize on a screen that I Googled and saw a film trailer.  Hollywood is going to ruin it, so please read the book first.

 

 

 

 

Book 19 – Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service…, by Jeff Toister

The answer is that it is usually policies and processes, as opposed to people, that make customer service so bad.  No big surprise.  The examples are heavy on the retail, which doesn’t help me quite as much at work, but make it easy to relate on a personal level.  Also, it was written for managers, rather than actual customer service practitioners.

 

 

 

 

Book 20 – Trouble is My Business, by Raymond Chandler

I shouldn’t be allowed to count this, because I now understand it is one short story that was part of a larger book.  But I didn’t know that when I downloaded it.  I wasn’t particularly impressed.  It seemed like…something Raymond Chandler wrote for a junior year assignment, and the lead was a chump version of Marlowe.

 

 

 

 

Book 21 – The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obrecht

It’s a fable or a parable or..one of those things.  Young doctor in the Balkans goes out to the middle of nowhere to inoculate some kids just as her grandfather dies.  She remembers her grandfather’s stories of “the deathless man”, who I was sure was going to be revealed as The Wandering Jew but was not.  I like stories where Death shows up like a real character and makes people give some actual thought to their place in the universe.  I gotta tellya, there is an actual tiger and I worried about him a lot.  But it was worth it.

 

 

 

 

Book 22 – Life Itself, by Roger Ebert

I was at the library right after Ebert died and could not believe the audio version of his book was on the shelf.  Read by Edward Hermann, thank you very much.  I remember tweeting that when I got to the chapter about Siskel, I hit pause and got up to find tissues and ice cream.  But I didn’t cry because I had already heard so many of the stories.  He had a complicated relationship with his mother that might have had something to do with his complicated relationship with the bottle which might have had something to do with why he waited so long to get married.  The true joy of this book for me was hearing Roger talk about his wife Chaz and their huge family.   Also poignant was his description of losing the ability to speak, which made him an even more prolific writer.  I might have to go back to his website and read every damn thing he ever wrote.

 

 

Book 23 – Drood, by Dan Simmons

First person fiction narrated by 19th century novelist Wilkie Collins.  Seems to be a bit of a Salieri to Charles Dickens’ Mozart.  He is also an opium addict.  Historical fact – several years before his death, Charles Dickens was on board a train that derailed and killed a lot of people.  In this fiction, Dickens describes to Collins a dark-cared Egyptian man named Drood who was present at the site of the crash.  Mystery, mystery.  Apparently Drood had been riding on the train in a coffin.

And so unfolds a dark epic of graveyards and mistresses and underground opium dens.   People disappear and reappear and Collins thinks Dickens might be crazy,  then might be a murderer, then might be an innocent under the influence of an evil supernatural beast.  At some point in the book, when I decided I didn’t trust any of the theories on the table I remembered that the narrator is an opium addict and thus not a trustworthy witness.

This book is messed up.  I loved it.

 

Books 24 – 26 – Three more Deborah Knott novels, by Margaret Maron

One in a carnival, one in the mountains and the one where the judge marries a childhood friend that was right under her nose the whole time.  Finally catching up to that Christmas one that started me on this series in the first place.

Lots of Books I Haven’t Logged Yet

Book 8 – The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It and Why It Matters, by Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

The are the people that do the Forbes’ Great Places to Work lists.  The main theme is that if your people don’t trust you, then nothing is going to work well.  And it talks about ways to build that trust in your workplace.  Good stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

Book 9 – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

 

Widower and retired army guy is in something of a depression following the death of his brother.  He begins a friendship with a widowed neighbor lady who happens to be..Pakistani, I think.  They both have foolish, presumptuous families and the neighborhood has revealed itself as rather racist.  In a “we will shop in their store but they can’t belong to the golf club” way.  I had trouble with this in the beginning, because outside of our heroes, there is hardly a likable character.  But I am glad I stuck with it.

 

 

 

 

Book 10 – Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

This was the most YA of all of the Austen novels, which makes sense since it was her first.  She was doing a bit of a satire of the gothic novels of her day.  I am not sorry that I read it, but I am not in a hurry to see a film version.

 

 

 

 

 

Book 11 – It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, by Colin Powell

I believe I have mentioned I am in freakin’ love with Colin Powell.  If he had run for president, I would have actually donated money to the campaign.  And blogged about it.  Dude’s endorsement is what pushed me over the top in voting for President Obama in 2008.  I have seen him speak and he is fabulous.

This book has a bunch of his stories, many from the military, along with corresponding life lessons.  The material is very good, but he doesn’t blaze any trails of new ideas.  I am sorry to say the most striking thing for me was his story about the UN speech before the Iraq War.

I have always maintained the assertions that Colin Powell lied on behalf of the administration in order to proceed with the war were total BS.  If Powell thought there was danger, that is all I need to know.  He may have been wrong, but he sure wasn’t going to lie.

He seems to be saying there is a lot of blame to go around, and the life lesson for him was take your time, do your homework and verify, verify, verify.

Books 12 – 15 – More Deborah Knott books, by Margaret Maron

I am still having fun with these, but there have been one or two instances that I wanted to call BS on the misdirection techniques.  One I remember was a victim’s train of thought at the beginning of the novel.  When the reveal was “the husband did it” I actually went back to read that scene, because I had clearly made a bad assumption.  But no.  It was a cheesy misdirect.  However, I am still reading.

Book 16 – Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Seriously, I only read this because an audio copy was available for download from my library.  I knew it was going to be bad.  It was worse than that.  My mother, who had to listen to my shouts of, “EWWWW!!  Yuck!  No!  STOP!!”  will tell you that my primary objection is the sex.  One is required to picture Jamie Rook/Rick Castle/Nathan Fillion hooking up with Nikki Heat/Kate Beckett/Whatever-the-actress’-name, and one knows that this did not happen in the show, but this is how Castle is imagining it in his little writer’s head.  The writing was as Hollywood-bad as you’d expect, but to give credit where due, they really were true to how I would expect the character of Richard Castle to write a novel.  But really.  Ew.

Up Jumps the Devil, by Margaret Maron

Book 7

Maron continues with the continuing sub-theme of the development of rural and coastal areas of the South.  In this case, the land is too close for comfort.  One of Deborah’s brothers, who is a techie living in California, was offered an obscene amount of money for his small plot of strategically located land on the family homestead.  Then there are a series of murders that seem to be related.

The first is solved instantly.  The others are a slow burn.  Also, this was the second time where members of the Knott family have motives for any given crime. At one point, I stopped reading and tried to figure it out.  And I am happy to tell you that I did.  It is not that it was so obvious, but I am finally learning the mystery writer game.

In other plot developments, Deborah is still a district court judge, which brings in some good scenes.  She is still seeing the game warden guy and we are introduced to the secret annulled husband.  (Insert eye roll here.)  Overall, I continue to enjoy the series.