Friday, May 29, 2015

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

Cover image for The residence : inside the private world of the White HouseThe Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
By Kate Anderson

This is a fascinating look into the residential life of America's most powerful families who inhabit the White House as told through extensive interviews with the household staff - the maids, butlers, chefs, electricians, plumbers, and more. This is a world on which very little light has been shed over the years due to the intense code of secrecy the staff abide by, protecting the intimate details of some of the most public figures. Anderson worked hard to gain trust and access to their stories, and even in 'dishing' the staff she interviewed told very little in the way of salacious gossip or anything harmful to the families they served over the years. Still it is a rare glimpse that shows the strength, vulnerability, humor, and character of these very public presidents and their wives.

For me, just the intense structure in place to safeguard ensure total privacy and protection of the first family was so interesting. When a new president is sworn in, the household staff serve as the movers and move the leaving family out and the new family in - all during the inauguration so when the new first family comes to rest and prepare for the balls they are already moved into their new home. It was also hilarious and astounding to read about the idiosyncrasies of these iconic people - like Lyndon Johnson's obsession with having a shower that sprayed him with scalding water from all direction at the pressure of a fire hose; or Nancy Reagan's tight leash she kept on her husband. This is a fascinating read that is well researched and written in a very readable style.

Funny Girl

Funny Girl: A Novel
by Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 2015. 452 pgs. Fiction

Nick Hornby’s new novel is set in London during the 1960s. Sophie Straw is a beautiful young woman determined to escape her small town life and become a star. With "pinup" good looks, her desire to be a comedian takes most people by surprise. It takes a few strokes of brilliant luck to allow her the opportunity to star in her own series and introduce all of England to their newest sweetheart.

“Funny Girl” introduces readers to a host of very relatable and likable characters in an era of rapid change, especially in the entertainment industry. Sophie and her associates are smart and witty and they are forced to deal with real issues as they ride the wave of fame and success.  The question is, what comes next? No one stays on top forever and no one can stop the clock or avoid the changes that inevitably face us all.


Ghost Boy

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body
by Martin Pistorius
Nelson Books, 2013. 276 pgs. Biography

At the age of 12, Martin Pistorius slowly began to withdraw from life. His parents and doctor were mystified as to the cause and within 18 months he was completely unable to interact with the world around him. However, several years later, Martin’s mind started to wake up and he spent nine years fully conscious but unable to communicate with his family or caregivers.

Then one day, a new caregiver became convinced that Martin was aware and convinced his parents to have him tested. After tests confirmed he could understand what was being said Martin was given the technology and developed the skills he needed to communicate, and began to re-enter the world.
This is an inspiring story of dedication and love. Martin and his family survived heart-wrenching tragedy and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But his emergence as a vibrant, happy and hopeful man, excited to face the world, and anxious to help others can’t help but lift the spirit.


Saturday, May 23, 2015


by Nick Harkaway
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.  337 pgs. Fiction

Lester Ferris is a British soldier assigned, after terrible tours in Afghanistan, to the former British colony of Mancreu, which has recently been given a death sentence due to a large pool of biologically poisonous magma below its surface, which occasionally erupts in the form of noxious gas clouds. Ferris is told to mind his own business and turn a blind eye to troubles on the island, and to the menacing presence of the Black Fleet, a collection of ships in the harbor where businesses ranging from espionage to off the records tortures are conducted. But Lester is drawn into the island's business when he befriends a young comics-obsessed boy whom he comes to care for enough the he hopes to adopt him - if he is indeed an orphan. When one of Lester's best friends is killed in front of him and the boy, and then the boy is casually beaten and his comic books destroyed by a Ukrainian smuggler, Lester becomes Tigerman, dressed in decorated body armor and a gas mask, to scare and shame the Ukrainian. But soon Tigerman becomes much more, a totem of the islanders, and a shadowy figure who nevertheless stands reluctantly but firmly against the considerable forces of evil in a land about to die. Any description of this book will fall short of truly conveying its tension, good humor, deep sorrow, the depth and richness of its characters and setting. It is a tour-de-force, whatever that means and you should not miss it unless you want to avoid some sexual references and a fair amount of swearing. It is the kind of book one regrets having finished because then it is over; the book you don't want to take back to the library even though you have already read it.


Swan Song 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich

Swan Song 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich
by Walter Kempowski
W. W. Norton, 2015.  479 pgs. History

Walter Kempowski has here assembled an extraordinary collection of first-hand accounts of the end of World War II in Europe, as told by eyewitnesses in Germany. Prison camp detainees, Russian soldiers, German civilians, Hitler himself, are all represented here in letters, diaries, published accounts, speeches, and war councils. Dispatches and speeches of the famous are interesting - Hitler assuring his confederates that he will still be able to lead them out of this mess, that he is the only man who can do it; Goring demanding that Hitler yield command to him since he is second in line and Hitler is no longer able. But the most fascinating accounts come from previously unknown civilians, such as Olga Gindina who thanks her soldier husband for arranging for someone to come fix her stove, or an American soldier describing the initial awkwardness of the American and Russian meeting which soon gave way to smiles, handshakes, and pats on the back. The fear of the German people and their disgust with their leaders is palpable, as many flee from East to West, hoping to be captured by the Americans rather than the Russians. Swan Song is an instantly indispensable piece of World War II history. For a similar account from the other side of the pond and more civilian oriented, read Studs Terkel's The Good War.


Friday, May 22, 2015

The Children Act

The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014. 221 pages. Fiction.

Presiding as judge over family law in the London High Court, Fiona has passed down judgments in many high-profile, highly controversial cases. She has built an enviable reputation of fairness and intelligence.  Now she faces the interesting case of a young 17-year-old boy about to die because his parents' religious beliefs forbid the treatment that is almost sure to save him.  This case comes at a time of personal upheaval and what seems an important but not landmark case, is destined to be a turning point in Fiona's life.

Though I haven't read his entire back list, I believe this is my favorite of Ian McEwan's books.  It is not a long read and, though certainly deep and thought-provoking, it moves along at a good steady pace.  Fiona is not an immediately engaging character, but as the reader learns more of her past and her thoughts, she becomes more and more relatable.  Her stern judge’s facade hides a very complicated and human woman and I found myself hoping she would find peace and happiness despite the difficulties of life. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Little Beach Street Bakery

Little Beach Street Bakery
by Jenny Colgan
William Morrow, 2014. 424 pages. Fiction.

Polly Waterford's life has fallen apart. Her boyfriend's business, which she has spent years building up, has gone bankrupt and her relationship with her boyfriend is over. Penniless and looking for a new start, Polly moves from Plymouth against the advice of her friends and takes up residence over an abandoned bakery in Mount Polbearne, a fishing village on the Cornish coast that is completely separated from the mainland when the tide comes in. Polly soon rediscovers her love of baking and slowly begins to create a business where she thought none was possible.

While this book does have its fair share of romance (of course there are two handsome and eligible men chasing after Polly), a good deal of the plot focuses on Polly's reinvention as she changes from someone who lived the high life to living a quiet rural existence and making a business out of a simple act that brings her joy. This is a book that makes you want to step back and reexamine your own life, to find the kind of simple pleasure in a simpler lifestyle that Polly has. It's a book that will make you want to put down your phone, step away from your computer, and enjoy the world around you.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle For the Great Society
by Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press. 2015 370 pp. Non-fiction

In the legislative session immediately following the landslide election of 1964, Congress enacted a slew of legislation in order to advance LBJ's Great Society program, ending years of political stalemate and obstruction. Looking back, this achievement is often ascribed to the towering personalities of the time, President Johnson most of all. In this book, the author takes to task our flawed historical memories of these events and attempts to consider politics in a more realistic light. Instead of focusing on individuals, their particular gifts of persuasion, such as Johnson's infamous Treatment, or nebulous attributes such as leadership, the author contends that the political climate and landscape were much more influential in getting Great Society legislation enacted. It was not so much Johnson's leadership and mastery of the legislative process that got his agenda passed as the overwhelming size of the liberal majority in Congress, the crushing defeat of Goldwater and public pressure applied by civil rights groups and the media. When political fortunes turned and the conservatives regained much of their losses in the 1966 midterms, the liberal agenda faltered accordingly. There is an implicit comparison to the Obama administration and his critics who complain that the persistent political deadlock and partisan vituperation are due to the president's inability or unwillingness to reach across the aisle, demonstrate leadership, etc. Individuals matter and each person's gifts and foibles play their role, but success or failure of any political agenda are determined by circumstances and the relative strength of the political coalition pursuing that agenda.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On the Fence

On the Fence
by Kasie West
HarperTeen, 2014. 295 pages. Young adult fiction.

Growing up with just her dad and three older brothers, Charlie (short for Charlotte) has always been more interested in sports than fashion. But then Charlie gets a job at a clothing store and becomes an accidental makeup model, she soon finds herself living two lives. She can't let her brothers see her wearing makeup and trendy clothes, but she also doesn't want her new friends to know about her extreme sportiness. And when Evan sees her all dolled up and asks her out it seems to prove her conclusions: boys don't want to date sporty girls. As she works these questions out in her evening talks at the fence with her surrogate brother, Braden, will Charlie find a way to link her two lives together?

West has written a fun summer romance (be warned, there are several love triangles to navigate here) that actually has a lot of interesting thoughts about getting to know yourself, showing your true self to others, and finding friendship and romance with people who really appreciate all aspects of who you are. Readers will root for Charlie as she comes to understand that she doesn't have to be all girly or all sporty, but that she can be a mix of the two that best represents her. The characters are well-drawn and, while there are some seriously awkward moments in keeping with the fun summer romance premise, the overall result is a nice light read that will get readers thinking about how they see themselves.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Of Noble Family

Of Noble Family (Shades of Milk & Honey #5)
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor, 2015. 575 pages. Fantasy

In the final book in the Glamourist Histories series, Jane and Vincent are asked by Vincent's estranged brother to travel to Antigua to settle the family estate upon the passing away of Vincent's father. Although reluctant to have anything to do with his abusive father, even in death, the couple feels obligated to perform this last service for Vincent's family. But when they arrive, things are not as they appeared from European shores - and this time, the intrigues and machinations of the House of Hamilton could prove deadly.

Kowal has meticulously researched the time period for this last book and has provided a lot of interesting details about the West Indian slave trade and practices as part of her narrative. Indeed, the author admits that she had to drastically change her storyline in order to remain consistent with her research. Although some details seemed a little irrelevant to the plot, overall the story pacing was magnificent and provided a great balance of action and character development to keep the reader interested. An action-packed conclusion to a very unique fantasy series.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Saint Anything

Saint Anything
by Sarah Dessen
Viking, 2015. 417 pages. Young adult fiction.

Sydney has always been overlooked in her family, always second to her charismatic older brother, Peyton. But when Peyton is imprisoned for hitting a boy on his bicycle while driving drunk, Sydney suddenly learns just how far out the picture she is as the family focuses on Peyton's prison term. It is in this lonely circumstance that she meets the Chatham family, who welcome her into their tight-knit family and make her feel safe, protected, and seen for who she is.

I think this may have been one of my favorite book by Dessen yet. The theme of loneliness is so subtly written that you can truly empathize with Sydney without ever feeling like she is exaggerating or being selfish or whiny. And yet you can feel a lot of sympathy for Sydney's parents, too, who are in an indescribably difficult situation themselves, even while you wish they would open their eyes to see what is going on around them. The well-rounded characterization makes this more than a teen drama; it is a family drama, as Sydney and her parents try to come to terms with how Peyton's actions have changed everyone's lives. This was really beautifully written. And, unlike some of her other books, this was a pretty clean read, with only a handful of instance of strong cursing.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Better Than Perfect

Better Than Perfect
by Melissa Kantor
HarperTeen, 2015. 324 pages. Young adult fiction.

Juliet has a perfect life: beautiful and ambitious parents; a brother at Yale; an impending early admission letter for Harvard; a boyfriend who is just as driven as she is. Their motto has always been "Don't make a scene." And Juliet has always lived for the security that perfection gave her. But when her father suddenly moves to an apartment in the city and her mother overdoses on prescription medications, Juliet begins to see how imperfect her perfect life is.

This book was a hard choice for me as a staff pick, mostly because for a lot of the book I was really angry with Juliet and a lot of the poor choices she was making. But the point of the book is not her poor choices; in the end, Juliet is searching for joy in her life that transcends the mere illusion of perfection. As a recovering perfectionist myself, this theme was really powerful to me. The point of this book is to emphasize that life is messy and cannot always be tightly controlled. Readers, while they may deplore the choices Juliet is making, will see how she is genuinely searching for a more effective way to live her life and new ways to relate to her no-longer-perfect family. A hard read, but very satisfying in the end.


We Can Work It Out

We Can Work It Out (Lonely Hearts Club #2)
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, 2015. 312 pages. Young adult fiction.

Get over a scheming boy? Check. Start a fabulous girls club to support girls who are leaving their scheming boyfriends? Double check. Find an amazingly supportive and understanding new boyfriend? Oh, yeah. Penny Lane Bloom has it all - great friends, a new outlook on life, and a boyfriend who doesn't seem to mind that she is the head of a rapidly growing group (The Lonely Hearts Club) that is revolutionizing the way teenage girls approach romantic relationships. But will Penny be able to balance all of her conflicting interests or will she end up alienating all of them?

Fans of the original Lonely Hearts Club will love seeing the interaction between the driven Penny Lane and her practically perfect boyfriend, Ryan. The circumstances and lack of communication often make it rather awkward reading (I often wanted to shake Penny, who seemed absurdly obsessed with trying to make her relationship with Ryan look casual so as not to offend her girlfriends.), but Eulberg does a great job showing how to have a boyfriend without losing your identity and how to have strong outside interests without alienating your boyfriend.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Bookseller

The Bookseller
by Cynthia Swanson
Harper, 2015. 338 pages. Fiction.

It's Denver, 1962 and Kitty is an independent woman, running a bookstore with her best friend, living on her own, and satisfied with her life, even though romance does not seem to be in her future. However, when she goes to bed, in her dreams it is 1963. She has a wonderfully attentive husband, a beautiful home, adoring children...everything she could ever have wanted. The more she dreams, the more the lines of reality are blurred, leaving both Kitty and the reader wondering what is real.

Swanson writes an interesting story around a theme that is common in Spanish magical realism circles (check out Julio Cortázar's short story La noche boca arriba [The Face Up Night] for the quintessential work using this theme - you can find a lot of English translations on the Internet), but pretty innovative in an English-language setting. What she is able to do is analyze the life of a 1960s housewife and a 1960s single woman at the same time, comparing and contrasting the existence of the same person in different circumstances. And she does an amazing job blurring the lines between the two lives. Both are written with enough detail to leave the reader wondering where dream begins and fantasy ends. Between the innovative styling and the fascinating subject matter, this book will keep you interested and keep you guessing. I consider it a 90% clean read - there are some instances of strong language and one short scene of intimacy.

P.S. - You'll definitely want to compare this to the Cortázar story I mentioned earlier - but read the short story after you read the book. You don't want anything to give away the ending.