30 April 2011

Books Finished Since April 1

book icon  Coming into the Country, John McPhee
After watching series like R5Sons Alaska and Flying Wild Alaska, plus numerous nature specials taking place in the area, I was a natural to be drawn to this book by nonfiction writer McPhee in which he examines the wild landscape, the individual Alaskans, and even the politics of the Last Frontier. The book opens on a fishing/camping trip that McPhee takes with four other men, surveying the Salmon River, where he immerses himself in magnificent landscapes of river bottoms, tundra, and mountain slopes teeming with wildlife, fish, and insects—and learns how to successfully avoid grizzly bears. Next, a short chapter focuses on the conflicts between those who wish Juneau to be retained as the state capitol, and those who feel that the government in Juneau are out of touch with "real" Alaskans and wish to form another state capital. The last and largest portion of the book portray the stubborn, strong, opinionated, and often odd folks who live in the "bush," often under living situations most people would find primitive and/or horrifying, from a man who passed the winter living off the land and scant supplies with only his dog for companionship, to couples who eschew beautiful clothing and furniture for "roughing it," to rough individualists who chafe at government control. I enjoyed reading about the "bush" and also about the unusual people who live in it, but found the chapter about the capital quarrel a bit dull.

book icon  Staying Together, Ann M. Martin
Is this the end of the "Main Street" series? There certainly seemed to be signs of a conclusion, with characters taking stock at the end.

Ruby's "project" to make up for the wrong thing she has done appears to be making her a better person, but her older sister Flora knows better. The girls are not speaking, and their best friends Olivia and Nikki can't help but be affected. In the meantime, the economic crunch has come to Camden Falls and all the small businesses are doing their best to cope. Will Hilary's family have to move back to Boston? Will their efforts to fund-raise for the town community center be successful?

The best thing about the Main Street books is that they don't solely concentrate on the child protagonists, nor do they gloss over some hard facts (Nikki volunteers at an animal shelter, and is faced with abused animals and survivors of puppy mills). Several portions of the book focus on Mr. Pennington's search for a new dog; in another sequence Mr. Willet (the elderly gentleman whose wife has Alzheimer's disease) makes a momentous decision about his future; Robby, the gentle boy with Down syndrome, enters a new phase in his life; even the girls' Aunt Allie's life is changing.

If this is a wrap-up book, it ties up most loose ends. But I will certainly miss my visits to Camden Falls.

book icon  The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
I was curious when this book came out, enough to go to Amazon.com to read reviews. Some of them were downright vituperative: "shallow, silly, stupid," all came up at various times. A frequent theme reoccurred: "What does Gretchen Rubin have to be unhappy about? She says...brags, some people insist...about her wonderful husband, kids, family, job, home.

I think they missed "the piont," as they used to joke on Ask the Manager. Rubin admits her blessings of home, family, and work right off, but wonders: "If my life is so good, why am I so unhappy so often?" This is Rubin's discovery of herself, and how making herself happy actually helps her family and friends attain happiness as well. She doesn't perfect anything, backslides and recovers, admits selfishness and frustration, but persists. It's her journey into what works for her, but any "happiness project" you do for yourself must center around your own needs and situations. I found her writing bright and interesting, and, while there is some repetition, it is usually to emphasize key points, not to fill space.

I felt inspired by Rubin's journey and hope to profit from it. I may never have a super job in New York City or adorable children, but happiness can be attained on many levels. Your mileage may vary.

book icon  Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin
As a baby, she was found on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius by two scientists of the school of Salerno, a girl they named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. In a school which made no distinction between men and women, Adelia, as she is known, has not only been trained in medicine, but has learned to read from the bodies of the deceased the method of their death.

In other words, she's a coroner—and in a 12th century world. When four small children are murdered in Cambridge and the profitable Jews of the town are blamed, King Henry II asks the King of Sicily to send someone who will sort the means of their deaths. Along with her companions, Mansur, a Moor who acts as her bodyguard, and Simon, a Jew, Adelia is sent to England, a superstitious, religious-constrained, male-oriented England that would consider an educated woman a witch. Under cover of acting as a "wise woman" assistant to Mansur, Adelia slowly reveals the brutal nature of the crime—and that the killer is living among the people she has been traveling with, including a kindly abbot, a high-living abbess, a churlish knight and his kindly companion who have returned from the Crusades, and the former Crusader Sir Rowley Picot, who takes a shine to Adelia.

While Adelia does seem a bit more "liberated" than any medieval woman would be (including providing low-cal suggestions to an overweight man), Franklin does an excellent job of portraying medieval society and the living conditions of the unwashed, unlettered world around Adelia. Do be aware that the childrens' murders are very brutal and described as such, which may be disturbing to some.

book icon  Meerkat Manor: Flower of the Kalahari, Tim Clutton-Brock
This was a great find from the bargain shelf! If you followed the Animal Planet series Meerkat Manor, you will probably also enjoy this well-narrated, lavishly-illustrated book by Clutton-Brock, who headed the research project studying the meerkats. Indeed, the project had progressed over several years before someone had the idea to film the colony of meerkats, develop it into a narrative, and turn it into a television series. For that reason, this book covers more than Flower and her progeny, but begins with her own birth and puphood, and describes how she became the alpha female of the "Whiskers" clan. The observers are careful to be just that—the meerkats were given names only to keep from referring to them by confusing numerical identifiers—but it's quite amusing to see how the meerkats actually became used to the researchers and used them and their vehicles for lookout perches!

book icon  The Shanghai Moon, S.J. Rozan
When I picked this up I thought, "Wow, I haven't read a Lydia Chin story in ages." And ages it has been, at least a half-dozen year since Rozan's last novel involving this pair. When I finished I realized it had been worth the wait.

When Lydia is hired by Joel Pilarsky to look into a matter of missing jewelry, she never realizes how deeply she will become emotionally involved with the original owner of the piece, Rosalie Gilder, an Austrian Jewish girl who, with her brother, fled the country just before the Nazis captured the remainder of her family, and emigrated to Shanghai, and who left a legacy of letters behind. On the ship she meets a charming Chinese businessman who will shape her future.

There are several threads working in this mystery, including Lydia's rocky relationship with her now ex-partner, Bill Smith, and her attempts to get her contentious mother to move somewhere more comfortable, her family's connection to Chinese gangs, and the tangled lore of a legend that has become attached to the piece of jewelry known as "the Shanghai Moon," but the most fascinating portion of the story is the historical tale of the Jews who moved to Shanghai and formed a community there after being turned away by other supposedly freedom-loving countries. This was a historical event of which I had no knowledge, and I was as engrossed by Rosalie's tale as much as I was by the search for the "Moon" and a murderer. Great from first page to last—and, Lydia? don't be away so long next time!

book icon  The Anglo Files, Sarah Lyall
When Sarah Lyall married a British man and moved from New York City to London, she realized she'd have to face some culture changes: driving and language differences, for instance. But she also found some things that were downright perplexing or odd: the glacial speed of cricket, the eccentricities of nobility and the House of Lords, political and sexual banter, the legendary British habits of understatement and self-effacement, the Page 3 girls in the Sun, the unpredictable British weather, and more—and even hedgehog lovers.

Anglophiles may enjoy this wry volume that hides a bit of melancholy and frustration under Lyall's commentary. It's obvious that she's never quite fit in with the British lifestyle and it shows. In fact, many times she makes the British sound a bit pathetic, when all they have is personal quirks just like any other person of any other nationality. Still, I found it a fun read without taking the sour underside too seriously.

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith, Jack Canfield/Mark Victor Hansen/LeAnn Thieman
Perfect Lenten reading: 101 short pieces about faith, love, healing, consolation—occasionally even humorous recollections. Several of them can be applied to any denomination, but these are chiefly told from the POV of the Catholic faith.

book icon  The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs
I hadn't read Jacobs' other book, The Know-It-All, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this book. I'd purchased it last year and pulled it out for Lenten reading. Jacobs, Jewish by heritage but not doing more than lending it lip service, decided to spend a year "living Biblically," trying to obey rules set by the Bible, eight months for the Old Testament, four for the New. He starts out in what I take is his typical quirky manner by having his clothing inspected so that he does not break the rules that say fibers of wool and linen should not be mixed.

The first thing I need to say is that Jacobs' wife Julie has to be the most patient woman on earth. When Jacobs said he was going to live by the rules of the Bible, he tried to meet most of them, including things like not sitting in chairs that a menstruating woman had previously sat in. Plus, given the idea and the book's cover, the whole thing sounded as if it might be flippant.

Well, he is a bit flippant, but not usually about the Bible, and in the course of consulting books, investigating other churches (as well as things like a Creationist museum and Bible discussion groups), talking to religious people as diverse as Amish farmers and snake-handlers, Jacobs' text often reminded me of points presented in The Happiness Project: that if we just took the time to slow down, be kind to one another, listen, and give something of ourselves, our lives just might be a little better. Offbeat but more insightful than you'd expect.

book icon  What on Earth Have I Done?, Robert Fulghum
In this latest collection of life essays by Fulghum, he talks about "the Mother Questions," those that your mom demands of you when you have been too full of yourself: "What on earth have you done?" "What in the name of God are you doing?" "What will you think of next?" and "Who do you think you are?" When Mom asks them, they are daunting enough...but in reality, they are questions to ask yourself for all time. The essays are grouped into threes, written in his own neighborhood in Seattle; from a second home in Moab, Utah; and from his vacation home in Crete (where he tells a delightful tale about his housekeeper). These later essays aren't as fresh as his earlier ones, but I had to bookmark this bit by Fulghum, I liked it so:
       Meanwhile, the trucks of fate roll by.
       The trick is not to get run over by one.
       The trick is to be there, alert, by the side of the road, with your thumb out. So that if the truck with your number on it just happens to come along, you will know. And you will get in and go. And the ride will be as long and as lovely as you always imagined it might be.

book icon  Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, Michelle Nevius and James Nevius
This is the kind of history-combined-with-travel book I love. The Neviuses take us street by street starting at the Battery and the earliest settlement on the island of "Manna-hata," and then northwards as the city expands over the years. Many books of this sort print a photograph and a few lines, but this volume is jam-packed with facts and fascinating stories like that of "the Peach War," Castle Clinton (which later became the predecessor to Ellis Island), the oldest existing cast-iron building in the city, the revelation of just who is buried in Grant's Tomb, and other facts well-known or obscure. Peppered with black-and-white photographs, this is a great volume for anyone who loves history and especially that behind the metropolitan massiveness of "the Big Apple."

book icon  A Rather Lovely Inheritance, C.A. Belmond
Yes, okay, it's chick-lit. But it's light, charming, with a minimal mystery and a likeable heroine, Penny Nichols, a young woman who makes her living doing research for historical films. When Penny is named an heir in her Aunt Penelope's will, she makes the re-acquaintance of her handsome cousin Jeremy, now an attorney, and the acquaintance of her distasteful Aunt Dorothy and her dissolute cousin Rollo, and a whole passel of familial intrigue, including hidden bequests and a long-buried secret.

And thus begins an odyssey that crosses England, France and Italy as Jeremy's right to inherit is contested, and a mysterious burglary of Penny's new flat inherited from her aunt takes place. There's nothing deep or socially significant about this book—it's just nice light reading, with an appealing, spunky heroine, a dashing but moody hero, a few shady characters along with a few more with ulterior motives, the romantic history of lively Aunt Penelope, and foreign locales that will make you want to move to a villa in France or take a vintage flat in London. Just put your brain in neutral and enjoy.

book icon  Atlantic, Simon Winchester
Having grown up barely fifteen minutes' drive from an Atlantic inlet (Narragansett Bay) and spent so many summer (and winter) Sundays on the shore of this restless ocean, I was eager to read this new effort by Winchester.

As a whole I enjoyed this "biography" of the Atlantic ocean beginning with its formation after the separation of the super-continent of Pangaea. Winchester then uses as his framework Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" to tell the story of man's relationship with the turbulent ocean: the Phoenicians' tentative steps onto the feared waves in search of murex dye, and other early explorations, followed by the great wave of European explorers, and then onward to stories of battles at sea, famous wrecks, the extension of technology across the ocean (the Atlantic cable, followed by the transmission of wireless), to the present-day worries of pollution and rising sea temperature affecting marine life. Despite this organization, the book occasionally feels scattered, with irrelevant tangents, although in total the history, legends, and tales collected are of interest, especially a history of trans-Atlantic shipping and the first packet boats.

This is my first foray into one of Winchester's books, so I came with no pre-conceptions of his writing style. Other reviews appear to have found something lacking in this volume. Perhaps, then, this volume is best read by Winchester neophytes, or those who really love the lore of the Atlantic and won't mind the occasional sidetrack.

20 April 2011

For Molly Murphy Fans

Are you a fan of Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mysteries? If you have a Kindle or a Kindle phone app, you can get a free, prequel Molly Murphy story from Amazon.com that will be delivered to your device when the story is released on May 10:

"The Amersham Rubies"

19 April 2011

Whilst Wandering Through a Catalog

When I name beloved books that I first read in junior high school—The Family Nobody Wanted, The Story of Walt Disney, What Katy Did/What Katy Did at School, A Wrinkle in Time, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Especially Dogs, The Morning of Mankind—there is one I always forget to name, but the book itself is so memorable that I smile at its title just thinking about it: Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie, although I first knew it by its American title, The Edge of Day.

This was a magical book. Lee was born during World War I and grew up impoverished but surrounded with the love of his mother and older sisters in a small English village. This was the first time I had ever read prose that sounded more like poetry; Lee's use of description and language was like a song set in paragraphs, a chronicle of his home and village life, and his adventures in growing up.

Google Books has some sample chapters of this extraordinarily lovely autobiography here; perhaps you too will fall in love with its delightful prose.