Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred
by George F. Will
Crown, 2014.  223 pgs.  Nonfiction.

     George Will is probably best known for his political columns in the late-lamented Newsweek  magazine and now for his participation on ABCs Sunday Morning news show. But he writes about baseball from time to time, too, and as one of millions of hapless Cubs fans, he has a lot to talk about. In this slim volume his topic is perfectly suited to the wry humor of his delivery, as he explains how Wrigley has made the Cubs what they are and have been, both for good and ill.  P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who built Wrigley didn't care so much about winning and losing as he did about creating a place where the whole family could come and enjoy the day in "the friendly confines" and beautiful spaces of Wrigley - a picnic-like atmosphere, is how he expressed it. Apparently he foresaw what would not be happening on the field; i.e., winning, so he made the surroundings so pleasant that even now, after all these years of losing records, Wrigley's stands are generally sold out which makes the Cubs even less likely to win because there is no financial incentive to pay for a team that could win. Will incorporates American History, religion, philosophy, and architecture, among many others things, in his ruminations about one of the two most iconic ballparks in America and it is fine, fine reading, whether you like baseball or not.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia
by David MacLean
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 292 pages. Biography.

David MacLean wakes up one day on a train station platform in India. He doesn't know who he is or why he is in India - or even why he is at a train station. Plagued with hallucinations, paranoia, and severe depression, MacLean struggles to reconstruct his forgotten life after a serious reaction to a common anti-malarial drug causes severe amnesia.

I picked this up because the concept sounded intriguing - who doesn't want to read about amnesia? (Every author falls back on amnesia as a plot at some point, after all.) This is a heart-wrenching account of the realities of amnesia, told in startling detail. MacLean is very open about exactly how he felt during the first years of his new life, addressing his confusion and vulnerability fearlessly. But what I loved most about this book was the writing itself. MacLean is a novelist, and it shows even in a nonfiction work. The book reads very much like a novel - the prose is bright and vivid, and he uses common fiction tropes, like shortened chapters to lend a feeling of the episodic nature of his early awakening in amnesia, that make it a much less dense read than many nonfiction books. Beautifully written and eminently readable.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Play It Again

Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible
by Alan Rusbridger
Farrar, Straus and Girox, 2013. 403 pages. Biography.

When Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger went to his annual amateur piano camp and heard one of his fellow amateurs pull off playing Chopin's G minor Ballade, he is amazed. And inspired. This is one of Chopin's most challenging pieces - a song that even professional pianists sweat over playing. Thus begins his journey into learning the G minor Ballade for himself, over a period of 16 months, with 20 minutes of practice a day whittled out of one of the most hectic work schedules in the news industry - and in a news season that included the release of the Wikileaks documents and working with the volatile Julian Assange and the infamous World of the News phone tapping scandals, both of which were coordinated by Rusbridger. Rusbridger's success shows that a dedicated amateur can take on the impossible and do amazingly well in the end.

The premise to the book is interesting: can an amateur take on the job of a professional and do it even passably well? Rusbridger seeks the answer both through his own experience as well as through interviews and consultations with professionals, both musicians and scientists. While the cover description calls it a battle cry for all amateurs, not necessarily musicians, I found that the text itself was full of enough musical terminology as to make it difficult for non-musicians to read. Even as an avid amateur pianist myself, I soon started skimming through what seemed never-ending descriptions of changing his fingerings for passages and his quest to find the best antique piano to put in his new music room at his summer cottage. The most fascinating part was his behind-the-scenes description of some of the biggest headlines of the day (Julian Assange came off as considerably less neurotic in the standard press than he is in this book) and his discussions with behavioral scientists, neurosurgeons, and professional musicians about the possibilities of amateur musicians to tackle even the hardest pieces in the repertoire. Overall, great for a reader who is profoundly interested in how to make good music, even as an amateur.


India Black

India Black
by Carol K. Carr
Berkeley Prime Crime, 2011. 296 pages. Mystery.

When a customer dies (of natural causes) in India Black's place of business, the formidable abbess of the Lotus House brothel has only one mission: to get rid of the evidence and protect her business from scandal. Little does she know that a chance encounter with one of the government's special service agents, known only as French, will lead her to a wild adventure involving kidnap and Russian spies.

I picked this series up on a whim and have not regretted a moment of it. India Black is a truly well-constructed character who has you rooting for her in spite of, or perhaps because of, her profession. She is sharp and resourceful and her interactions with French are ingenious. The mystery is a fun romp, but it is the characters who are the most enticing part of the story.

I hesitated as to whether I could categorize this as a clean read or not. In spite of everything, India is a madam and she is very frank when it comes to discussing her trade. No euphemisms for her! This is her life and trade and she has made her peace with it. However, while the first book does have the most content of the series (that I've read so far), it still is not the graphic content that I've seen in other books. Carr seems less concerned with describing graphic sexual encounters than with creating well-rounded characters.


Saturday, March 15, 2014


by Patrick Lee
Minotaur Books, 2014.  328 pgs.  Mystery

     Weird but exciting, Runner tells the story of Sam Dryden, an ex-Special Forces soldier who is out jogging one night when he sees a young girl being chased by what appear to be some kind of commandos. She asks for his help and he hides her, the two hanging from the bottom of the boardwalk until the danger passes. Young Rachel apparently has skills perceived to be dangerous to either the government or some entity associated with it, and quite a lot of people, with access to the most sophisticated surveillance satellites ever developed, want her dead. Unfortunately, she can't remember any of her life before the past two weeks, though she has retained the startling ability to read minds which she uses to great effect to help the two make their escape. Things get exponentially stranger as the story progresses and as Rachel's true abilities begin to emerge, it gets harder and harder to know who are the good guys and who the bad. Runner is a fast and furious read, and Sam, who recently lost his wife and daughter to a car crash, is a deeply sympathetic character with a fabulous set of skills. Things got a bit too violent, and a lot too strange for me towards the end of the book, but it was a ripsnorter and no mistake.  I hope there is no sequel because one hate's to think of what Rachel could do as an angst-ridden teenager.


Stone Cold

Stone Cold
by C. J. Box
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2014.  370 pgs. Mystery

     Joe Pickett, the best sort of game warden who has lately dealt as much with the deaths of people as the poaching of animals, finds himself in another sticky wicket as he is on secret assignment from the governor to investigate a wealthy benefactor of the people of  Medicine Wheel County. Wolfgang Templeton is rumored to have been a Wall Street tycoon who got fed up with the business and fled, but not without taking a pile of dough with him. Templeton is also rumored to be a financier of contract hits on some marks richly deserving of death. Joe is not welcomed with open arms when he arrives under cover of an assignment to relocate a flock of pheasants (which would be instantly poached) and to help the resident warden locate places to establish wildlife appreciation centers. Most of the county's population is beholden in some way to Templeton and the last investigator to the county died mysteriously in a motel fire. Joe's life is threatened as well, perhaps by a friend who may have gone to the dark side. A side-story in which Joe's daughter Sheridan is keeping her eye on a loner Goth with a gun obsession at her dorm at the University of Wyoming keeps that tension ratcheted right to the breaking point in another great mystery from the Mountain West.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Vampires In the Lemon Grove in the Lemon Grove
By Karen Russell
Knopf. 2013. 256 pgs. Short Stories

I am a big fan of Karen Russell (St. Lucy's School for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Swamplandia!), and her third book  is another stunning collection of short stories that did not disappoint.

 Russell's style pulls from magical realism and southern gothic tones with fantastical elements that weave together to create shockingly believable worlds that strike at the very core of human experience. In these stories the theme of metamorphosis carries through as young girls in Japan morph into silk worms, a bullied epileptic boy transforms into a scarecrow, ancient Italians emerge as lemon sucking vampires, drought riddled cropland in Nebraska starts growing the bones of those who died for the land, and a traumatic memory of an Iraq War veteran transfers to his massage therapist. These are stories that will flood your imagination with both tender and haunting images that are hard to shake. ZB

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Burial Rites

Burial Rites
By Hannah Kent
Little, Brown and Company. 2013. 448 pgs.

This book not only grabbed my attention in story but the setting was incredible and so new that I did additional looking to see the homes that were talked about and the way people lived on these freezing farms. Based on a true story, Kent has taken the dark reality of Agnes Magnusdottir's execution (the last in Iceland) and has given a sad and thoughtful background to her crime and the result.

Agnes unravels her story bit by bit to a young priest in training and it is revealed that her crimes could be considered justifiable but also gives Agnes the personality of someone who is complex and led a hard life. The family Agnes is sent to stay with before her execution is drawn in to her story and even begins to care for this criminal as they learn her life leading up to her conviction. The writing is captivating as Agnes narrates her story and the priest grows to care about her.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Finding the Dragon Lady

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madam Nhu
by Monique Brinson Demery
Public Affairs, 2013. 280 pgs. Biography

While I always enjoy books on history, biographies and the Vietnam War era is particularly fascinating, he thing that drew me to this book was the cover. Fabulous! In this book the author alternates between her quest for and on-and-off-again telephone conversations with the mysterious Madame Nhu and a brisk and lively account of Nhu's life in Vietnam. As the sister-in-law to the head of state of South Vietnam, Madam Nhu acted as de facto First Lady of her nation and courted controversy both at home and abroad. The author does a good job portraying the humanity of her subject while still being honest about the merits underpinning her notorious reputation. I would recommend this to anyone fascinated by history with a greater emphasis on individuals rather than broader conflicts or events.



by Richard Powers
W. W. Norton, 2014.  369 pages.  Fiction

     Richard Powers' profoundly literary novel is also, in its way, a thriller. Peter Els, a composer, retired music teacher, and former chemistry student, has set up a bioengineering lab in his kitchen which against all odds has drawn the attention of Homeland Security. Els googles around to see how much trouble he might be in, and then realizes he is tightening the noose around his own neck.  So he runs. Reflecting on his life as he crosses the country, he draws the reader into the world of avant-garde music, and then of other varieties of experimental music as he tries to discover and transcribe the very essence of music. And he can't let his quest go, even when it tears him away from what should be most dear to him and when, the strands of the creation's deepest nature and his need to make music intertwining, he finds himself in peril of his life. Orfeo is a work of extraordinary depth and range, a story of one life and of life its very self.



Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Mad, Wicked Folly

A Mad, Wicked Folly
By Sharon Biggs Waller
Viking Juvenile, 2014. 448 pages. Young Adult

When seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling is caught posing nude for fellow students in her life drawing class, she scandalizes both her family and 1909 London's proper society. Aghast, her parents rush her home from her French finishing school, where her mother launches an immediate campaign to try repair her daughter's damaged reputation. Part of Vicky's mother's reparations? A marriage to a suitable young man, who turns out to be handsome and charming, but not without his own secrets. But Vicky has other things on her mind: namely, her art. While her parents make every attempt to crush her artistic goals, plucky Vicky finds a way to thwart them. On the way, she gets involved with the suffragette movement, applies to London's Royal College of Art, and meets a kind young police constable who may just be her muse . . . or the love of her life.

As the door to her gilded cage begins to close, Vicky must decide how much she's willing to sacrifice to pursue her true calling -- and her happiness.

A Mad, Wicked Folly surprised me in more ways that one, the first being how much I responded to the novel's love story (romantic subplots not generally being something I enjoy). There were moments between Vicky and Will that had my heart in a fist, and Waller's light treatment of tender moments was a true delight. Vicky is a plucky, tenacious, and passionate character whom readers will easily connect with  and root for, especially as she takes up the suffragettes' cause. Fantastic historical fiction.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Nazi Hunters

The Nazi Hunters:  How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi
by Neal Bascomb
Arthur A. Levine, 2013.  245 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust and responsible for the deaths of many millions of Jews during World War II, escaped from a prison work camp and managed to make his way to Argentina where he hid for many years under the name Ricardo Klement. Jews dedicated to finding and prosecuting Nazi war criminals could not find Eichmann until a teenage girl whose father was half Jewish started dating a boy named Nick Eichmann who boasted about his father's Nazi past. At first dismissed by Israeli intelligence (Mossad), Sylvia Hermann's story eventually led to the identification of Eichmann and  to an ultra-secret Israel operation to kidnap him and take him back to Israel for trial. Evidence suggests that young people are not much interested in history these days, but Bascomb's The Nazi Hunters . . . is just the kind of tense, even harrowing, adventure story that could change some minds.