Thursday, April 17, 2014

Altered

Altered by Gennifer Albin, 390 pages

Altered is the second book in what I assume will be a trilogy centered on 16-year-old Adelice Lewys, a girl who has the ability to create, destroy, and manipulate people, space, and time using the fibers that make up the universe. She's not the only person who can do this, but she is the best, and one of very few who can do so without the help of a loom. Once she figures out (in the first book, Crewel) that the sparkling, beautiful world of Arras isn't what it seems, she busts through the weave into the dessicated shell that is Earth, which is where we find her in Altered.

Just like all middle books in a trilogy, Altered moves the story forward but doesn't really have many resolutions. More intrigue, more questions, fewer answers. This is a typical YA dystopian novel: girl with awesome powers fighting The Man, yet unsure if she can trust the rebels, and, oh yeah, she's stuck in a love triangle. Yeah, there are a few things that make this different (the triangle involves two brothers, there's a time-warp element (but not in the fun, Rocky Horror way), and, oh yeah, the whole fiber-arts thing), but really, it's just another dystopian YA series. Adelice is kinda meh; I'd put her somewhere around the midpoint of the Katniss-Bella Scale, possibly leaning toward the Bella end. Oh, and the names in this book DRIVE. ME. NUTS. There's a guy named Erik, which is normal enough, but I've kind of had it with odd spellings and exotic names for no good reason. (Seriously, part of this is set in post-WWII America, and nobody cares that there are people named Jost and Jax and Deniel and Falon running around?)

Anywho... if you're crazy about fiber arts and just can't get enough of love triangles set against an action-packed background, go ahead and read this. Otherwise, stick with the Hunger Games and Divergent.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

People of the Book

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks.  372 pages. 2008

      I knew I was going to enjoy this book when I saw that Geraldine Brooks dedicated this novel to librarians everywhere.  This is a story that follows an Australian book conservator who is charged with working on what is called the Sarajevo Haggadah (an illuminated Hebrew codex).  As her work progresses, the mysteries begin to unravel, and we are shown glimpses of where the book has been.  The jumps from the past to present are nice, and help push the narrative along. 
       The characters can be compelling and are memorable, as well as Brooks's description of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain.  In each period of the book's history, someone was able to make the necessary sacrifice to preserve it, and I had to say that I enjoyed those parts the most.

The Faraway Nearby

The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit  259 pages


      This is Rebecca Solnit's follow up to The Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I also just recently finished.  This book felt a little heavier, as it deals with a myriad of issues that all of us go through in life, beginning with her discussion of her mother's Alzheimer's disease.  Solnit is able to weave her personal experience with astute observations of the world around her. The main theme has to do with the idea of storytelling, and some of its various manifestations in the world.  The prose is lyrical, and  ties together themes in refreshing ways for those who have not read her work before. I can't say that this book is better than A Field Guide, but it resonated with me quite a bit.  When she writes about art, and the act of reading, I would have underlined an highlighted the book like a madman if it wasn't a library copy.

Madness, Rack, & Honey

Madness, rack, and honey : collected lectures. Mary Ruefle. 326 pages.
 
 
      The title of this book caught my eye when I was looking up lists of poetry books on Goodreads. The book turned out to be something I want to have in my own personal library at home.  Mary Ruefle is an accomplished American poet who teaches and is sometimes required to give lectures although she dislikes public speaking.  Her solution to this problem is to read these lectures straight off the page. 
       The most surprising thing about this book is that while it concerns itself with poetry, it isn't always about poetry. It is a book that is about the creative mind of ideas, notions, ways to think about poetry, writing, living.  It is not another dry instructional book about how to write poetry, which is a gift to a world over saturated with such things.  Read it. Lovely in ways I have a hard time trying to describe.

The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistad Maupin, 270 pages


         The Days of Anna Madrigal is the ninth and final installment of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City Series, which began in 1978.  Even if you have not read the aforementioned series before, this is still a lively book with a lot to offer the reader.  Maupin initially published Tales of the City in serialized form in The San Fransico Chronicle, one of the first examples of gay characters viewed as equals to their straight counterparts of its kind.
       This is a fast read that is humorous and endearing for the reader.  I would have to say that its target audience is probably for readers over the age of thirty, but still entertaining to say the least.

Blood, Bones, & Butter

Blood, bones, & butter : the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef. Gabrielle Hamilton.
291 pages

        For anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant business, sometimes reading or watching shows about people who work in kitchens can feel a little too close to home. It can be like working an extra shift for the week.  Normally, I shy away from these types of memoirs because of this, (most definitely away from Hell's Kitchen or the like) but Gabrielle Hamilton does a fantastic job here. 
         The road for Hamilton begins in her childhood, in the kitchen of her mother- and then moves towards owning her own restaurant in New York many years later.  Her descriptions of the often soul sucking environment of kitchens both near and far are honest, as well as the joy one can also find in these places.  I found myself both rooting for her, laughing, and even disliking her in some parts- especially when she talks about cooks who burn themselves just not being careful enough.  Her descriptions of the food are by far some of my favorite parts as the flavors shift with the rhythms of her life.  Riveting, in a take no prisoners kind of way, which is how you have to be if you want to survive as a chef.

How Architecture Works, A Humanist's Toolkit

How Architecture Works, A Humanist's Toolkit, Witold Rybczynski. 355 pages. 2013


       This is a splendid volume that can serve as an introduction to Architecture in general.  Rybczynski makes Architecture approachable with very clear passages and stories that address the practical concerns of the architect as well as their aesthetic considerations as well.   He has been widely published, and serves as the perfect guide for readers curious about how contemporary architecture works.  The book flows well and may just tempt the reader to experience architecture in a different way. 

Charlotte Sometimes

Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer
192 Pages

This book was mentioned in something else I read (I can't remember what).  It is about a girl at a boarding school who finds herself switching places with another girl at the same school decades earlier.

Mildly entertaining, the book probably wouldn't hold the attention of today's young reader.  It certainly doesn't have the detail of Harry Potter's world.

How to Run with a Naked Werewolf

How to Run with a Naked Werewolf by Molly Harper
317 Pages


This is a romance about a woman physician running from her ex-husband who becomes involved with a bounty hunter who is a werewolf.  If you aren't a romance fan, Harper's snarkiness makes up for the mushy parts.

Not as strong as Harper's other series, "Nice Girls Don't have Fangs."  it still is a quick and enjoyable read.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
260 Pages


If you are a book lover you'll like this book. A.J. Fikry is the owner of a small bookstore on an island in the northeast.  He is a curmudgeon, in mourning from the death of his wife, completely isolated from the community he serves.  A series of events draws him back into life and the book follows the next 20 years as he changes and becomes a family man, a successful bookseller and an integral part of the community.


Temporal and Eternal


Temporal and Eternal by Charles Peguy, translated by Alexander Dru, 159 pages

This small book collects two essays by the great French poet Charles Peguy.  In the first, Memories of My Youth, Peguy uses the Dreyfus affair to illustrate and criticize the manner in which mystique, philosophical and theological principle, invariably becomes corrupted by, or into, politique, the prudential application of those principles.  This, he demonstrates, is nothing less than the subordination of the eternal to the temporal, the assertion that "it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."  In the second essay, Clio I, he takes on the persona of the Muse of History to chide the "ecclesiastical Church" for ignoring the temporal, and the "lay Church" for idolizing it.  The soul of Christianity, Peguy claims, is that the actions of men and women, made in time, extend into eternity, so that the temporal is taken up into the eternal.

As in Peguy's poetry, repetition plays a central, sometimes almost overbearing role in his essays.  His meaning is not always clear, concealed as well as revealed by allusion and metaphor.  Yet, since many of the themes he works with here are also major themes in his poetry, these essays also serve to illuminate much of his larger body of work.

Odd and the Frost Giants

Odd and the Frost Giants written and read by Neil Gaiman, 117 pages; 1 hour 30 minutes on audio

Odd is a 12-year-old boy who has a bit of a bad lot in life. His dad died last year while on a Viking sailing expedition (though it was from drowning while trying to save a pony rather than from battle wounds), and not long afterward, Odd's mother moved in with a rude man and his herd of rude children. To add injury to insult, Odd then crushed his foot and leg, making him even more useless in the eyes of his new stepfather.

So when Odd leaves home in the middle of winter, nobody seems to mind, though it opens Odd up for an adventure that quite lives up to his name--after meeting Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Loki (who are trapped in the form of animals), Odd vows to help them reclaim Asgard from the Frost Giants.

It's a delightful tale, and Gaiman's narration on the audiobook is wonderful. (Seriously, can we get Neil to read every book?) My one regret about the audiobook is that I missed out on what I've heard are some lovely illustrations in the traditional book version (though, of course, then I would have missed out on Gaiman's reading). I suppose I'll just have to thumb through the book version as well...

Sacred and Secular

This is the print version of a series of lectures delivered in 1964 by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury.  This was a year before the publication of Harvey Cox's seminal work The Secular City, but the ideas associated with that book were already dominant in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic, in large part due to the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  These lectures serve as a corrective, reminding the reader that Christianity can never be entirely focused on the things of this world, while simultaneously reiterating that the good things of this world must not be neglected.

Ramsey carefully explains how Christianity serves the world precisely by retaining its otherworldly orientation - only by acknowledging the transcendent can the good for this world be recognized and embraced.  It then follows that the traditions of asceticism and mysticism continue to have a vital role in Christianity.  Finally, he addresses the questions of whether Christianity can truly exist absent a religious culture, and to what extent Christians can embrace a fully secular culture.

An excellent defense of a Christianity that must always be involved in the world, but must never be reduced to it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

When God Spoke Greek



After Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, Hellenistic culture - including the Greek language - became the dominant culture from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.  In the centuries that followed, Jewish scholars, centered in Alexandria and traditionally seventy-two in number, translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  This translation (or rather series of translations), called the Septuagint, became the authoritative scriptures for Diaspora scholars such as Philo, and would become the accepted Old Testament for the New Testament authors and the early Church.

When God Spoke Greek serves as a general introduction to a version of the Bible that is not well known in the West.  Indeed, it would be better to speak of versions, since as Law makes clear, there was no one single "Septuagint", but multiple translations and revisions, leading up to the Hexapla of Origen in the third century.  The ancient Greek texts hold keys to ancient versions of the Hebrew Scriptures which differ from the medieval Masoretic text generally accepted as the standard.  Some of the differences in these translations proved vital for the development of early Christian theology, not least of all in the writings of St Paul.  Finally, Law demonstrates how, even after the divergences between the Septuagint and the rabbinically approved Hebrew texts became known, many early Christians continued to accept the Septuagint as inspired, and others did not see a problem with accepting both the Greek and Hebrew versions of the same books.

A solid introduction to a vital but little-known chapter in the history of both Judaism and Christianity.

Me Before You

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, 369 pages

Will Traynor is a 30-something yuppie brimming with life. He works hard, buying and selling companies (usually for a six-digit profit); he plays hard, climbing Kilimanjaro and scuba diving when he goes on vacation. Or at least he does in the prologue. By the time chapter 1 has started, Will has been in a horrible accident and is now a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair and only able to move the fingers of one hand, which is how our narrator, small-town stuck-in-a-rut girl Louisa "Lou" Clark, finds him when Will's mom hires her to be his companion.

Based on that description, I wouldn't blame you if you assumed that this would be a heartbreaking read. And to a degree, you'd be right. However, it's also heartwarming and hilarious. Will and Lou share an acerbic sense of humor, and it shines through as they get to know each other. This is easily the funniest book you'll ever read about quadriplegia. I warn you though... you'll cry too. Probably a lot. But it's worth it and it's fantastic.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton, 329 pages

OK, let me preface this review by pointing out that I am a sucker for a heist story. When there's a difficult plan to steal something (the more valuable the target and the more complex the plot, the better), I am sold.

That said, The Great Train Robbery is a textbook example of a great heist story. Set in the 1850s, Edward Pierce is the mastermind of a plot to steal a shipment of gold bars traveling by rail from London to Crimea. Over the course of a couple years, Pierce gathers information (using everything from his considerable charm to a snarling leopard) to piece together the perfect plan to pull of this dangerous heist, facing new obstacles every day. While we know from the outset that the heist will happen (look at the title of the book!), watching Pierce and his cohorts pull it off is thrilling.

As with his other books, Crichton put a lot of research into this tale, filling it with enough historical accuracy that it feels like non-fiction. The characters don't get much depth, though it works well here, in that it creates an air of mystery around our thieves (and I believe that was intentional on Crichton's part). Originally published in 1975, this is one of Crichton's oldest books, and in my mind, one of his best. If you've only read Jurassic Park or, heaven forbid, The Andromeda Strain, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot  by Jeffrey Eugenides, 406 pages

I've been meaning to read some Jeffrey Eugenides, and this is my first title by him. It's a sort of bizarre love triangle/anti-love story. Mitchell loves Madeleine but she doesn't love him back. So he sets off on a trip through Europe, bound eventually to India, to find himself and explore religion. Madeleine loves Leonard but Leonard is a severe manic-depressive and being with him is like being on one of the most insane roller coasters you could possibly imagine. Leonard seems to love being depressed. He needs Madeleine to make him feel complete but he doesn't think he needs the Lithium his doctor has prescribed. Madeleine needs to feel needed but doesn't realize that in caring for someone else, she neglects herself.
Eugenides accurately captures the complexity of relationships, where in completing someone else, you lose something yourself. His portrayal of the constantly imbalanced relationship and the power struggle within will be familiar to anyone who's ever experienced it.
This is not a light book, by any means, but it's a realistic depiction of a modern love story.

P.S. It's set in the 80s, so there's some fun pop culture references throughout.

In The Shadow Of Blackbirds



In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters        387 pages

Set in San Diego during World War II, Mary Shelley has gone to stay with her aunt Eva in the midst of the Spanish Influenza outbreak.  People are dying all around them from the disease and they are worried about getting sick also.  Mary Shelley is also worried for her father, who has been arrested and for her friend, Stephen, who has gone overseas to fight.  She and Stephen weren’t officially courting, but they definitely loved each other and Mary Shelley is devastated when she finds out that Stephen has died.  Stephen’s brother, Julius, is a spiritual photographer.  He photographs people and loved ones who have died often appear in the background.  Stephen always claimed that Julius was a fraud but when Aunt Eva asks Mary Shelley to sit for Julius, Stephen appears in the background and soon after, Mary Shelley starts hearing Stephen’s voice.  She has never believed in ghosts but now she’s not so sure.  This is a good historical, supernatural story for teens.

Death And The Girl He Loves



Death And The Girl He Loves by Darynda Jones                  255 pages

This appears to be the conclusion of a trilogy that began with Death And The Girl Next Door.  After nearly being killed, Lorelei’s grandparents send her away to a boarding school, thinking that might keep her safe. But Lorelei is the prophet and the only one who can stop the annihilation of the world.  When Lorelei starts seeing visions of the deaths of the other kids at school she knows that the end is coming soon and that going away to school didn’t change anything.  She goes back home to prepare, but the problem is, she has no idea what she is supposed to do to stop the upcoming war between good and evil.  I didn’t like this book as much as the first two.  The whole business of going away to school seemed kind of pointless and really didn’t add much to the story.  It also didn’t feel very realistic.  I kind of liked the ending, though.  Up until the last few chapters, I was kind of uncertain of what was really going on, which made me want to keep reading until the very end.  Overall, a fairly solid book and teens that like supernatural stories will probably enjoy it.

Fortunately, The Milk




Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman     101 pages
One morning, after their mother has gone away on a trip, the kids realize that they are out of milk for breakfast so their father decides to go get some.  He is gone for a terribly long time and when he comes back he tells the kids a fantastic story about why he was late, that includes aliens, pirates, a stegosaurus, a volcano, the Eye of Splod, and a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier, just to name a few.  This is pure Neil Gaiman and is a lot of fun.  A great read for kids who like humor.  Reluctant readers will like that it is short with a lot of white space and illustrations.