Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Paper: the Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

On Paper: the Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History
 By Nicholas A. Basbanes
 Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 430 pgs. Nonfiction

Nicholas Basbanes cultural history of paper considers everything about paper from its invention to the Pentagon papers. He explores the technology of paper, paper as art form and hygienic necessity, paper as currency and passport. He travels to China and Japan to see the creation of handmade papers, to paper mills and spy agencies uncovering how the most valuable of papers are created and destroyed. In archives and museums he explores documents and diagrams that have changed history and made our technological society possible. This is an excellent, fascinating book best appreciated by dedicated nonfiction readers. SH

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: a Novel

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: a Novel
By Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow, 2014. 452 pgs. Fiction

Set in Afghanistan, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell interweaves the stories of two women. Rahima, the youngest of five daughters of an opium addicted father in present day Kabul, follows the ancient custom "bacha posh" and dresses as a boy so her family can have a male representative to do shopping and other errands since the father in the family is often away or incapacitated by opium. She finds courage for her role as she learns from her aunt about her great-grandmother, Shekiba, who was a "bacha posh" and acted as a guard in the king’s harem 100 years before. When Rahima is forced to become the fourth wife of a local warlord, she struggles to endure the brutal conditions of her marriage just as her great-grandmother endured injustice and cruelty a century earlier. Like A Thousand Splendid Suns, this tragic novel devastates the reader but also offers hope for the future through the incomparable courage and strength of the characters.SH

Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What That Means for Life in the Universe

Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What That Means for Life in the Universe
By David Waltham
Basic Books, 2014. 198 pgs. Nonfiction

David Waltham, an astrobiologist and geophysicist, makes the case that our planet has experienced a unique and unlikely four billion years of good weather. This stability accounts for the evolution of highly intelligent life on earth. Certainly the earth has experienced a number of dramatic events and transformations but surface temperatures have continually stayed in a range friendly to life. Many factors have made this possible: the size of the moon, the gradually increasing temperature of the sun, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more. Considered together the numerous factors he describes suggest that our climate history is rare in the universe and thus intelligent life is also extremely rare. This is a very interesting book for anyone interested in the geology, biology and the climate history of our planet or the search for life on other planets.


Astonish Me

By Maggie Shipstead

Alfred Knopf, 2014. 253 pgs. 

Maggie Shipstead's second novel Astonish Me is nothing short of astonishing. I read her first (Seating Arrangements), which I like well enough, but here she emerges to a new level of writing with brilliant pacing, tempo and execution. I enjoyed every moment of reading this book and was struck by the sparse, exacting style that she has perfected.

The story centers around the ballet world spanning the last four decades and loosely based on the real life stories of Mikhail Baryshnikov (a famous male dancer who defected from the USSR) and George Balanchine (a famous choreographer who also came from Russia and was the director of the New York City Ballet for years and attributed as the father of the American style). Through this world of intense dedication, single focus, precision, and beauty emerges a story that unfolds with the drama, intensity, and brilliance of a ballet. The narrative jumps back in forth in time, slowly building like a swell of music, and crescendos with a confluence of relationships that are both highly dysfunctional, and perfectly choreographed. 


Saturday, June 21, 2014

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Cover image for This is the story of a happy marriage
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
By Ann Pachett
Harper, 2013. 306 pgs. Non-Fiction

Ann Pachett is a well known and celebrated contemporary author of both literary fiction (The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto, Age of Wonders) and non-fiction (Truth & Beauty) and owner of Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN and online. Like most great writers, Pachett did not immediately find international success that launched her career as a novelist, and for many years she did a large amount of essay and article writing for all types of magazines from her start at Seventeen, and foray in bridal magazines, to Harpers, The Atlantic, and on to support her novel writing. This book is a collection of the best essays she's published over the years with a few additional new ones.

The essays range in length, subject and tone, but Pachett's clear, direct voice is enjoyable despite whether she is writing about the process of writing itself, or describing the time she spent training, preparing and passing the LAPD Police Academy physical and written test in order to fully research for a book she wanted to write. She is smart, insightful, and leaves room for the reader's own thoughts and opinions to filter through her experience. Both writers and non-writers alike will find valuable insights and wisdom here. ZB

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Cover image for The unchangeable spots of leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
By Kristopher Jansma
Viking, 2013. 254 pgs. Fiction
This is a story about a story about a story. Jansma, in his debut novel creates a stunning literary work that layers truth and fiction in surprising and new ways steeped in the style, tones, and tropes of the great authors of the literary tradition. At one moment he is Hemingway, the next Ibsen, and then Tolstoy. His prose is detailed and nuanced, his characters infuriating and compelling, his plot a cipher leading to interesting and though provoking questions. 

To try to describe the plot would be confusing both for me and for you as Jansma weaves in and out of multiple realities and it is difficult as the reader to discern and remember which details belong in which reality. This maneuvering is intentional and serves to illustrate the larger theme and question of the book- what is truth and what is fiction? What makes us ourselves? Can we change our spots? 'Tell the truth but tell it slant' said Dickenson, and Jansma does so with great skill. ZB

The Magician's Assistant

Cover image for The magician's assistant
The Magician's Assistant 
By Ann Pachett
Harcourt Brace, 1997. 357 pgs. Fiction

Sabine is a beautiful woman who has devoted her adult life to being a Magician's Assistant to her handsome, charming, and brilliant husband Parsifal. At the start of the novel Sabine is suddenly a widow, and finds herself examining her marriage, and her life have not been usual. Parsifal was gay. His lover Phan had died previously of Aids, and Sabine lived with them both and they were all the best of friends. Upon Parsifal's death Sabine is suddenly presented with a very different picture of her orphaned husband when the lawyer informs of her of a family she never knew he had. 

This is a look at the love we can share with others and the wedges that can drive us apart from those we love. As Sabine digs into the past of the man she loved she comes to know him in new ways, and carve out a future in a place she saw now hope. Pachett's style is strong, lyrical and character driven and the book reads quickly. ZB

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Precious Thing

Precious Thing
By Colette McBeth
Minotaur Books, 2014. 304 pgs.

Rachel and Clara have been best friends since high school. Their relationship is odd at times, and even more noticeable unbalanced in who cares for who more. As adults, they don't see each other often and don't even keep in touch like they used to. Rachel is  supposed to meet Clara one night to catch up, and Clara does not show up. Rachel arrives at the police station to do a press conference and finds out that the report she is covering is actually about Clara. As the mystery develops, everyone becomes unreliable and the background of Clara and Rachel's friendship is cringe worthy. The end is a page turner for sure and I had no idea what to expect.

This book has been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and the narration is similar as well as the story of twists and turns, but maybe because the originality of Gone Girl is not there, I don't think it holds up to the comparison. The darkness in characters, their lies, and their backgrounds is along the lines of a thriller and includes some moments of questionable truths as the author purposefully uses her narrators to misguide the reader. It is definitely a great read for someone who likes the darker reads and being unsure of who to believe. The story itself was creative, and it was hard to decide which person to side with.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those Who Wish Me Dead
by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, 2014.  392 pgs.  Mystery

     Jace Wilson sees something he shouldn't have seen:  a body in the bottom of a quarry pond.  As he surfaces, he sees two men kill another man and push his body off the edge. They don't see him, but they find his clothes.  When the safe house where he was supposed to be hidden is breached, his handler takes him to Montana to hide him in a Youth Survival program for troubled teens.  Even Ethan Serbin, leader of the group, doesn't know which boy is the witness, but he soon finds out when the Blackwell brothers, two of the creepiest, ickiest killers you may ever hope not to meet anywhere but in the pages of a book, appear, brutalizing and threatening everyone in their way. Can Ethan save Jace (aka Connor)--and what will happen to his wife if he does? or to the ranger who goes on the run with the young boy, especially as the forest goes up in flames.  Michael Koryta is one of the finest writers of literary thrillers on the planet, and he outdoes himself here in this tale that is simultaneously breakneck and tender. Put this one on the top of your summer reading list. But not for the faint of heart.


Any Other Name

Any Other Name
by Craig Johnson
Penguin, 2014.  317 pgs.  Mystery

Nothing is heavier on the nation's train tracks than a loaded coal train a mile or more longer.  This fact figures into Walt Longmire's latest adventure as he tries to figure out why his friend Lucian Connally's friend Gerald Holman.  Holman, himself a lawman in neighboring Campbell County not only shot himself, but shot himself twice--the first time apparently as some sort of punishment, and the second time in earnest to finish it all.  What Walt and his ever-beguiling deputies and friends need to figure out is what the connection is among the disappearances of three women in the county--the case Holman was working on when he died. But he'll have to get past a motley collection of plug uglies, not to mention a full-blown Wyoming blizzard, to find out. As always, humor leavens the terrors and sorrows of death in the high desert lands. You won't soon forget Walt's vision, when he is wounded and lone, of Grace Coolidge and her pet raccoon.  And don't forget the coal cars . . . .


Friday, June 13, 2014

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Cover image for Where'd you go, Bernadette : a novelWhere'd You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
Little, Brown and Co., 2012. 330 pgs.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette, is a riotous read written almost entirely through a slew of emails, faxes, handwritten letters, etc. put together and narrated by the charming Bee; the daughter of famous recluse architect Bernadette Fox and Microsoft demi-god Elgin. The story narrates the series of events leading up to the sudden and mysterious disappearance of Bernadette Fox two days before Christmas and her daughters frantic search to find her.

The style is witty, fast paced, and hilarious. Semple wrote for the TV series Arrested Development, and the same quirky, odd-ball humor is apparent here as well. Bernadette is an enigmatic character, constantly at battle with the gnats (annoying parents at Bee's private school), the city of Seattle, and her own excessive anxiety. Bee is a delightful character filled with spunk, intelligence, and deep loyalty. This is a perfect beach read this summer and will keep you laughing from start to finish. ZB

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Splendour Falls

The Splendour Falls
By Susanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013. 367 pages. Fiction.

Emily Braden was just going on a short trip to France to visit her brilliant and persistent but absentminded cousin. She's so used to his absentmindedness, in fact, that she isn't even surprised when he fails to arrive on time and sets out to learn more about the two Isabelle's who haunt Chinon, one a young queen of Arthurian reality and the other a young member of the Resistance who had the misfortune to fall in love with a Nazi. But the deeper she digs into the past, the more she sees that all is not entirely well in the present, either, and that Harry's absence might have a more sinister meaning.

Susanna Kearsley has an amazing way of combining the past and the present and making a coherent story that stretches across generations. Her prose is exquisitely beautiful and creates a scenario that is haunting and yet real. Anyone who has read her previous works (The Winter Sea; Firebird) will enjoy this one as well.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Feminist and the Cowboy

The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story
By Alisa Valdes
Gotham Books, 2013. 306 pages. Nonfiction.

I know what you're thinking already: no way this is nonfiction. And I readily admit that the title and the cover art make it seem much more appropriate to the romance shelves than in the venerable aisles of nonfiction. But this is, in fact, the real life love story of Alisa Valdes, one of the most influential modern Hispanic writers and a card-carrying, strident feminist, with a ranch-bound, conservative cowboy who insists on opening doors and walking between her and traffic on the sidewalk, despite her protests of outrage. More importantly, this is about how they make their romance work, coming from two such widely different worlds, and come to see how polarized they have become in their opinions.

Valdes has a knack to her writing that makes it very personable and easy to read. And yet she is sharing a lot of very personal information about her past, her relationship, and her need to change in order to find happiness. What this book does best is make you think about how social and political opinions affect personal lives and wonder if, maybe, it is time for you to make some radical changes in thinking much like Valdes does. This is definitely not for anyone who will object to strong language and considerable innuendo.


Friday, June 6, 2014

The House of Hades

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus #4)
By Rick Riordan
Listening Library, 2013. 14 discs. Young Adult Fiction.

In The House of Hades, Percy Jackson and his compatriots find themselves in a race against time to close the Doors of Death which is allowing monsters to enter the mortal world unfettered, in preparation for the last stand of Gaia against the demigods. Percy and Annabeth, trapped in Hades itself, must find a way to get back into the mortal world before they become permanent residents. Jason, Leo, Piper, Hazel, and Frank must all make their way to Greece to open the Doors of Death and let them out again. And, oh, yeah, don't forget all the monsters they will have to fight along the way...

Rick Riordan knows how to write a good story and to keep his readers on their toes while his protagonists are in mortal peril. And he does an amazing job letting the reader see the action from the point of view of all his protagonists without making it confusing, which is quite a feat with 7 narrators! However, parents might want to note that, like with the Harry Potter series, as the characters have matured, so have many of the themes found in the book. Parents might want to be prepared to discuss more mature material with younger readers. Also, as an audiobook, I was not impressed with the reader at all. This was the first of his books that I've listened to instead of read and I confess to being a little disappointed. His attempt to create unique voices for all the characters fell flat, in my opinion. This might be a better book to read or read aloud, rather than listen to the audio.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning
by Greg Iles
HarperCollins, 2014.  791 pgs.  Mystery

Penn Cage, former prosecutor and now mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, is suddenly faced with his aging and ailing father's imminent arrest for the mercy killing of his former nurse. Penn's father Tom refuses to share what happened on Viola's last night, so Penn begins his own investigation and all Hades breaks loose.  Suddenly Penn and everyone he loves are threatened by the Double Eagles, a brazen but shadowy spinoff from the Klan who whose murders and tortures have gone unpunished for decades. Henry Sexton, a small-town newspaperman, has pursued the Double Eagles for years and as he, Penn, and Penn's Pulitzer Prize winning fiancĂ© try to find the truth and bring the wicked to justice the murders and terrors increase and Tom Cage may not be able to be saved if the Double Eagles are to be stopped. Rich in history, culture, and the Gothic sorrows of the deeply divided Deep South, Natchez Burning is a fine story, filled with suspense and difficult choices.  Forewarning:  Contains graphic violence and sex.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran
By Hooman Majd
Doubleday, 2013. 252 pages. Nonfiction.

Hooman Majd, an American Iranian journalist whose father was forced to flee Iran with the fall of the shah in 1979, decides to take his American wife and newborn baby to spend a year in the land of his birth - Iran. What follows is an adventure that will help readers see the complexity of life in a land made off-limits to most as a result of Western sanctions, from the joys of traditional Persian culture to the frequent inanities of a government that is paranoid, at best and fearsome at its worst.

Majd presents a really fascinating look at a country most Americans have not seen. What I liked most about it was the balanced nature of what he reported - he shows many ways in which he preferred Iranian culture to Western culture, and vice versa. Beyond the culture, he also explains the politics behind the long-standing disagreement between the US and the West and the ayatollahs and President Ahmadinejad and how Western sanctions have both hurt and strengthened the common citizen more than we realize. Overall, a fascinating look at an interesting culture and country.


Monday, June 2, 2014

The Thousand- Dollar Tan Line

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line
By Rob Thomas
Vintage, 2014. 336 pgs.

I will just start by saying, I am a huge Veronica Mars fan. However, even if this is your first experience with Veronica and friends, the mystery of the book holds up on its own. You do need some background to the characters but other than that, Thomas has written a very entertaining mystery for anyone to enjoy. The audio book is narrated by Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell. This adds a completely new level of enjoyment as much of the fun comes in Veronica's quips and attitude.

Ten years after graduating high school and immediately after the recent movie but the story line takes on a different mystery then the television episodes and movie. This one follows a missing person's case that becomes dark quickly as an underworld of drugs and an organized crime group is exposed. With surprises and twists and the corruption of the sheriff's department, this book did not disappoint.


Called to Teach: The Legacy of Karl G. Maeser

Called to Teach:  The Legacy of Karl G. Maeser
by A. LeGrand (Buddy) Richards
Religious Studies Center, BYU/Deseret Book, 2014.  618 pages.  Biography

Most Provo residents have at least a passing knowledge of Karl G. Maeser, the man who essentially created the Brigham Young Academy which would become Brigham University.  But in Buddy Richards' magisterial new biography of not only a master teacher, but of an extraordinary man.  At an early age, Maeser rejected the life of a lawyer, doctor, or businessman but take up the much less prestigious and less financially secure path of attending the Friedrichstadt Teachers College. While there, he adopted the methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who advocated for a freer, fuller education that would allow all children to attend school and then to be taught using a more loving, more practical, learning-from-experience approach to education than the rote learning with rod in hand that was common in German schools at the time. The rest is history, as they say.  Maeser was essentially driven out of Germany by a government crackdown on new teaching methods, was converted to the LDS church after reading an anti-Mormon tract, and went on not only to establish BYU, but much of the LDS school system in Utah and adjacent states. In between the beginning and the end, the details of his life are fascinating:  just as Karl and his wife Anna arrived in America, their newborn son died on the ship and is buried in a small cemetery in Philadelphia; Karl taught music lessons to former President John Tyler's daughter while living in Virginia; Maeser was never the principal in the BY Academy building which now houses the Provo City Library; the University of Utah tried to prevent the Academy from conducting university level schooling--they wanted it to serve as a prep school to funnel students to them (phooey on that).  Underpaid and grossly overworked (Maeser and his fellows often had to collect their school fees in kind, in wheelbarrows) Maeser held always in mind the good of his students and his teachers. Late in his life, he spent long and grueling hours on the road in a buggy, touring the schools he then superintended, traveling from Idaho to Arizona and everywhere in between.    
He also spent a fair share of his time begging for money and support from his sponsoring institution and from the legislature, which he didn't get (some things never change). Called to Teach . . . is a long book, but it is so well-written, so well-researched, and so interesting you will have no trouble making your way quickly through it to its deeply satisfying conclusion.  So well done.  Don't miss it.