Blogs: Adults

In any given year I read quite a few books. Once I stopped trying to finish novels that turned out to be awful, I found I finished notably more books each year. The pages fly by when you're enjoying a book. When reading becomes a dreary slog through the pages it's too easy to find a more pleasant way to pass your evening and not much gets read. Once you stop reading the awful books, however, it takes a certain something extra for a title to really stand out from the mildly pleasing and good enough crowd of the average novel. So far in 2014 I've read two books that have really stood out.   

The Rook book jacketThe first of these titles was The Rook by Daniel O'Malley. The scene opens with a woman standing in the rain, in the mud, in the center of a ring of bodies. She doesn't know her name, she doesn't know where she is and she doesn't know what happened. All she has is a letter in her pocket from herself. Having read the letter, Myfanwy discovers that she is a member of a secret government agency that protects the UK from supernatural threats and is one of the few that has a supernatural power. Most powers are useless or nearly so; her power is not useless. Myfanwy must discover why her memory is gone, who she really is, and who found her enough of a threat to wipe her entire past from her mind. I would consider this a fairly literary novel for the genre and the author's use of the letters Myfanwy wrote herself to fill in the back story of her world is an interesting one. 

As I have often done before, I used my husband as my test reader. This time it was for Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It had been well-reviewed but I thought it seemed like it might be too much action and too little character development for my taste. I handed him the book to try at the start of a weekend when I had a nasty cold. I told him he'd love it and staggered off to suffer through my sniffles. I slept oblivious through his all-night reading session and he finished the novel in a single sitting! When I asked him how it was the next day, he 'fessed up to why he looked so tired and had slept so late. I've often read novels in one sitting but that was unusual for him. Here’s a bit about that compelling read:

Red Rising book jacketOn Mars there's very little gravity so when they hang you they let your loved ones pull your legs to hasten your death. Darrow is sixteen and works in the mines of Mars.  He knows, as all the Reds do, that the materials he is mining will help to terraform Mars (that is, make it habitable for humans) so that one day his descendants can walk on the surface. All he knows, though, has been a lie: Mars has been safe for generations. The Reds are slaves who have been kept in ignorance and despair by the higher castes who live well on the surface. The materials the Reds mine are being used on other planets and moons now instead. Darrow is strong from years of mining, but his young wife is small and thin. She always gives him part of her rations because he's still growing and she's "not hungry". She scarcely weighs a thing when he pulls her legs down.  Darrow now has nothing left to lose and gets pulled into a conflict between the ruling Golds and the Sons of Ares who are trying to overthrow the corrupt system.  Darrow only wants to live in peace, but they have brought him war.

I started the book that same evening and, miserable as I was with watering eyes from the congestion, the pages just flew past. I would have also stayed up far too late to finish the book in a single sitting if my husband hadn't come and taken the book from me and told me to be sensible and go to bed since I was so ill. Happily, Red Rising has been optioned for a movie even though it was just released; hopefully it turns out to be a good production of the book!

Chris a page at the Hollywood Library says this about the documentary Room 237:

Have you ever watched a movie and thought "There might be more going on here"? Well here's a movie about some people who have read many amazing things into the subtleties of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The Sixth Gun Volume One Book coverThere were no undead in the wild wild west.  At least, not that we know of…Toss in six magical guns with unfathomable power, a world turned upside down, and a reluctant heroine and you’ve got the fatastically addictive graphic novel series, The Sixth Gun.

Not a graphic novel reader?  Well, pardner, maybe it’s about time you started. Combining the classic western genre with a touch of the supernatural and fantasy, The Sixth Gun has something for everyone.

Becky Montcrief is the reluctant heroine who inherited one of the pistols.  Not knowing the repercussions of picking up a gun, she’s thrust into the unforeseen adventure of fighting for her life. You see, once you pick the gun, it’s with you till death do you part.

Drake Sinclair is an enigma draped in black with a complicated past. Crossing his path means trouble from him or the folks on his tail. Will his past deeds catch up with his mission of atonement?

The other folks?  Their stories are even better.

Strap on your holster and get ready for the adventure of a life and an afterlife time…

For Hanna Lundmark, born in the forests of nineteenth century Sweden and abandoned in the Portugese owned colonial town of Lourenco Marques, what could be more alien than to wake up bleeding, in a hotel with a chimp named Carlos who wears a white waiter's coat and serves tea?  After the bare, bone chilling temperatures of her native Sweden, the African heat is overwhelming, blinding, suffocating. The bright colors are intimidatingly lush and foreign. And all the Africans! Is it true that they can't be trusted? That you have to lie to them and keep them from knowing too much or they will take advantage of white people?

Hannah feels uncomfortable and strange but when she slaps the black woman who saved her life and unjustly accuses her of lying, Hannah knows that she is no better than the powerful white Portuguese colonists who live there. Without  quite knowing how or why, Hannah realizes that something inside her is paralyzed, without words to make sense of what she feels and sees. It is then that she picks up an blank book discarded by her husband and begins to record everything that happens to her and to those around her.

Asked about the incredible detail of the book, author Henning Mankell says he found out about some remarkable tax records in the colonial archives of Maputo, capitol of Mozambique. At the end of the nineteenth century they show that a Swedish woman owned the biggest business in town - which was then called Lourenco Marques. After a few years she is no longer mentioned - she came from nowhere and vanished mysteriously. Who was she? What happened to her? Where did she go? Mankell couldn't quit thinking about her. So "based on what little we know and all that we don't know"  he imagined  a captivating story of prejudice and transformation that begins in the bleak forests of  Sweden and ends in the sun soaked continent of Africa. Read Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise and you won't be able to quit thinking about her either.

​A few years back my husband was working in the storybook-beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Prague, and I had the chance to visit. He explained to me that I should not pet dogs belonging to strangers and I should keep my voice down when on the subway or bus. And it was true, voices were hushed on public transportation. One of our Czech friends explained that people became very worried about eavesdropping during the Soviet Era, so privacy was essential. 

Tram in PragueWhile the Czech Republic had the Velvet Revolution in 1989, there and in so many other Eastern European countries souls and psyches were scarred by years of corruption. On the other hand, they and other Eastern Europeans are still working to build a new kind of country.

For more about post-Revolutionary Prague, and a chance to look into the life of an American expatriate, Aaron Hamburger’s ebook The View from Stalin’s Head is essential. For an inside glimpse from Romania, watch 12:08 East of Bucharest where sixteen years after their soft revolution, townspeople all claim to have taken part in the protests in the square. Too bad the actual TV footage shows otherwise! Moving to East Germany, the stories in Ingo Shulze’s Simple Stories are not simple--they criss cross to build an intriguing novel that shows that blackmail, for instance, and other unsavory parts of life still lingered after the Berlin Wall.

We all know the scenario.   A few friends come over to visit, small talk fades, and everyone stares at one another in awkward silence.  Suddenly, the party erupts into excited cheers when someone suggests a game of “Thirst-Quench relay.”

“Four men or boys should be the runner in each of the competing teams for this, and they will have one girl partner.  She stands at the bottom of the lawn, with a tumbler and jug of water… but each runner when he reaches his team’s girl partner, must pause, and be fed by her with a tumbler full of water with a teaspoon.”  -- Games for Small Lawns by Sid G. Hedges

Sound like fun? No? Fine, be a spoil sport.   Maybe human croquet, tyre wrestling, or a good old fashioned shoe race is more your speed.  Books such as “Games for Small Lawns” offer a variety of entertaining options for your next social gathering.  The games are simple, require minimal equipment, and are guaranteed to turn the average party into something unforgettable.  After all, who doesn't’t love a good game of “nails”?

 

 

 

I have an embarrassing confession to make. For me, up until very recently, the name 'Biafra’ referred only to the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra. I might have known it alluded to something larger, but I couldn’t have told you a thing about Biafra, the short-lived independent republic of Nigeria.  That only began to change when I picked up Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image of book jacket: Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun was published back in 2006 but I was led to it via Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah.  I was so struck by Americanah's mixture of humor, social commentary and a heart wrenching love story, that I immediately sought out Adichie's other novels.  I’m in good company on this Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie love train. Beyonce has famously sampled portions of Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism for the remix of her song flawless; and the increased publicity Adichie has received, paired with her own sharp musings on everything from fashion to Nigeria's new anti-gay laws, is quickly making her a literary ‘it’ girl for a whole new audience.

July 2014 promises to finally bring the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun to the United States.  The story unfolds in late 1960s Nigeria, when a series of military coups, and the violent persecution of the ethnic Igbo population, led to the secessionist state of Biafra.  Adichie tells this emotional story through the eyes of two wealthy Igbo sisters, a shy British expat and a thirteen year old peasant houseboy. These different perspectives give a vivid and personal portrayal of both the euphoria of independence and the heinous brutalities of the resulting civil war.

One more thing- The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. With no disrespect to the great acting accomplishments of Miss Newton, 2014 belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. The enormously talented British actor, born of Nigerian-Igbo parents, may not have taken home the Oscar this time around, but his powerful portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave demonstrated what he is capable of as an actor. The world already knew Beyonce was flawless. Chimamanda and Chiwetel have since joined her.  I have high hopes that the movie adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun will follow suit.  You have until July to read the book first- go!

The ReturnedLast week, I was immersed in zombies and honestly, I'm not really a zombie-loving-type person. Okay, I love Shaun of the Dead and when I was younger, I watched my share of The Night, Dawn, etc., of the Living Dead. But then I got older and people rising from the grave just became too creepy and scary for me. Then I found The Returned (Les Revenants). It's a French TV series that is amazing! It's like a beautiful French film only better because it's 8 episodes long! The basic premise is that random people have returned from the dead. I like to believe that it's pretty farfetched that the dead will come back to us in the same form they left, however The Returned seems a pretty realistic portrayal of how people might react. Some of the living view it all with disbelief or suspicion, hostility, joy, or as a sign from God. There are twists and turns throughout the season as the histories of the dead are revealed. There's a serial killer that returns, just to keep you on the edge of your seat. Mon dieu! And thankfully, there's going to be a second season. I can't wait! It's available on Netflix right now or you can add your name to the waiting list at MCL.

While I'm waiting for the second season, I might see what Resurrection, a new, heavily-hyped TV show is like. This show is loosely based on a teen The Returned bookbook called The Returned by Jason Mott (they changed the name of the show so that it wouldn't be confused with the French show). I zipped through this book in less than a day but I'm still thinking about it days later. In this version of the dead coming back, we see people (or some version of those people) appearing far from their homes. A huge bureaucracy has been set up to deal with the vast number of the returning dead. Some families want their loved ones back and some do not; some of the townsfolk are welcoming and some become openly hostile. It's a sweetly melancholy book and a page-turning thriller. I hope that the TV show, Resurrection, can pull it off.

And in the time between watching The Returned and Resurrection, try one of my favorite horror shows.

One thing to note:  I am not a Jane Austen fanatic.  I have not read all of her novels.  I do not dress up in Regency costume.  I visited the Roman Baths in Bath, England, but skipped the Jane Austen Centre.  Don’t get me wrong;  I enjoyed reading  Pride and Prejudice even though my high school English teacher (on whom I had a mild crush) loathed it.  Mr. Conner’s admission was a bold one to make at an all-girls school.  Frankly, Mr. Conner’s statement is a bold one to make anywhere because everyone and her twin sister seem to adore Jane Austen.  Here’s a book, though, that fans and non-fans alike can enjoy:  Longbourn by Jo Baker. 

Longbourn book jacketLongbourn, to refresh the memories of those for whom high school was a long time ago, is the name of the Bennet home. While the Bennets, the Bingleys, Mr. Darcy and various other characters well-known to P&P readers show up in the wings, the servants Sarah, Polly, James, Mr. Hill and Mrs. Hill take center stage.  In an author’s note at the end of Longbourn, Ms. Baker calls the servants in P&P “ghostly presences.”  In Longbourn, she “reaches back into these characters’ pasts and out beyond Pride and Prejudice’s happy ending.”  

She has done an amazing job of it.  I was totally invested in Sarah’s heartache, James’s plight, and the sheer slog of keeping five young ladies fed, in clean clothing and on time for all of their social engagements.  I still wanted to slap Kitty and Lydia and strangle various other characters who had irritated me in P&P, but I didn’t have to dwell on them much before I could move along to a more compelling character and story.  Jane Austen is dead.  Long live Jo Baker!

It is perennially fascinating to me to observe what children see and don't see. Taking Child the Younger shopping provided a teachable moment and lovely conversation about gender identity and sensitivity when he noticed a happy boy his age dressed in a long pink ball gown Cinderella would envy. Child the Elder recently failed to notice that he had spray-painted the cement walk in front of our house while priming some models or that he had permanently super-glued two of these same said models to my dining room table. (No one failed to notice my screaming when I discovered these tiny unwelcome dinner guests.)
 
The things and people closest to us are often the last things we see. I was in middle school before it dawned on me, only with the comment of a friend, that there was something immediately noticeable to everyone else about my father's appearance. Later in life I met someone who had a similar experience with her father. He got up and put on two prostheses each and every morning. This was the norm at her house. It never occurred to her that her dad was missing both his natural legs until a friend happened to mention it.
 
Wool book jacketWhat if normal means growing up in a vast underground silo? Wool by Hugh Howey was just the dark dystopian page-turner I needed while Portland was buried in snow. Juliette is a smart and scrappy mechanic from the "down deep" lowest floors. Her brief and tragic love affair and her loyalty to those she lives and works with counters the shadowy IT department that maintains control of the silo. The many generations and over one-hundred floors of the silo come complete with a unique history, class system, and form of justice. The story begins with Sheriff Holston investigating and processing the death of his wife. The secrets he uncovers about the silo go with him when he, too, commits the ultimate taboo and asks to go outside. Will Juliette survive becoming the silo's new sheriff? Will her human connections be enough to sustain her in a dangerous quest to save the only society she knows?
 
Our children, too, are growing up with a new normal. Our day-to-day behavior as parents seems largely invisible and unimportant--unnoticed--until something The Big Disconnect book jackethappens and we realize our children are constantly watching and learning from our actions, large and small. One child, a seven-year-old in a play therapy session, had this to say in Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age: "My parents are always on their computers and on their cell phones. It's very, very frustrating and I get lonely inside." Clearly, we need to take a hard look at how our use of technology is impacting the fabric of family life. This is an important book. As the author says, "We can't afford to wait and we don't need to wait to see this much of the picture clearly: Technology, social media, and the digital age have converged on the American family, first transforming it and now threatening to replace the deepest and most vital human connections that children need to grow and thrive." The good news is that we can, as parents, mindfully use technology as an ally to strengthen family bonds instead of allowing it to erode them. This is the best parenting book I have seen in a long time--timely, interesting, easy to read and full of practical advice with a positive and hopeful outlook on our connected age.
 
Corvus book jacketSometimes the birds that don't stand out for their songs or plumage are the ones we should be noticing. Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson combines anecdotes of raising and living with corvids with beautiful prose. Set in her town near Aberdeen, Scotland, Woolfson describes her life with Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie, Ziki the crow and a whole cast of supporting doves and other more conventional pet birds (including a crabby cockatiel named Bardie.) The total brain-to-body mass ratio of ravens, crows, magpies and other members of the Corvidae family is equal to that of great apes and whales and only slightly smaller than that of humans. These birds recognize faces, mimic speech and sounds, and use tools. Their impressive capacity for long-term memory and complex problem-solving has been proven. Woolfson's close proximity and careful study of the birds in her life provides a rare glimpse into their fascinating minds. Read this and I promise that the ordinary crow you curse for picking open the garbage bag on trash day will never look the same.
 
Because now you see it.

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